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Now That I'm Older, It's OK To Objectify Me

Francesca Bessey |
August 13, 2014 | 5:45 p.m. PDT

Senior Opinion Editor

(@americanapparel, Twitter)
(@americanapparel, Twitter)

American Apparel has been on a train-wrecking roll with their latest “back-to-school” marketing campaign, featuring numerous tweets of their models’ thighs and backsides, a back-to-school catalog that reminds young women shoppers that “your first assignment is to dress accordingly,” and a miniskirt line named after the 12-year-old rape victim in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”

Not surprisingly, these advertising antics provoked backlash--particularly in light of the universal pronouncement of American Apparel founder and (now former) CEO Dov Charney as “skeezeball” after he was ousted from the company amid a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits. Several of the company’s ads have been banned in the United Kingdom and one of the most offending schoolgirl shots seems to have disappeared from the internet entirely (though not before it was captured foreverby one disgruntled Twitter user.)

READ MORE: Controversial American Apparel Founder Sacked

This latest controversy has rekindled a near-exhausted conversation about the at-best suggestive, and at-worst pornographic nature of the American Apparel aesthetic, particularly when analyzed alongside its equally prominent aesthetic of barely legal teen models. But one writer, the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman, has come to the company’s defense, saying that while the ads are problematic, they don’t mean American Apparel is sexist.

They’re just confused. Teeman writes:

[The advertisements] cause headlines because they are easy villains, and yet the more uncomfortable truth is we are hideously confused about what we know about young people socially and sexually: their demands, expectations, and desires—and these images make that confusion explicit. 

According to Teeman, we should stop worrying about American Apparel’s apparent fetish with sexual objectification and start worrying about the real problem, which he says is “a society insisting its youth grow up too soon.”

There is no doubt that the fashion and entertainment industries profit off of sexually suggestive depictions of children. Teeman cites the example of French tween model Thylane Blondeau, who at age 12 has been hailed by French magazine Jalouse as “the new Kate Moss,” and who was photographed at just 10 years old in stilettos and a series of shimmering, low-cut dresses while lounging on animal-print bed covers.

But in asserting that the problem with sexy spreads of pre-teens lies in the fundamental misinterpretation of youth culture, Teeman leaves out the essential fact that these aren’t just images of young people.

They’re images of young girls. It’s not their youth that necessitates these models’ sex appeal; it’s their femininity.

Our society has been confronted by a barrage of pubescent girls in short skirts and push-up bras, who copy the images we see before us and trade coveted knowledge of flirtation techniques.

We forget that these young women, who are often shamed or admonished for their so-called promiscuity, are simply conforming to what the media and popular culture says will be expected of them in just a few years time. 

Why are we so fixated on the idea that young women are acting older than their age--and thus being objectified--when we should be focusing on the far more troubling notion that once women reach, or appear to reach, a certain age, they are simply expected to be objectified? Why is being paraded around nearly naked to sell things considered shameful and inappropriate for teenagers, but an inherent part of being a female adult?

Let’s make one thing clear: All women, regardless of age, face a pressure to fulfill the sexual desires of men and to present as sex objects, regardless of the context in which they are in. And all women, regardless of the length of their mini-skirt or how they might tease their hair are liable to be treated as a sex object by somebody, simply because they are women. The fact that this phenomenon extends to teenage and pre-teen girls just means that some people set the threshold for seeing a young women as “sexy” at an age younger than others.

READ MORE: Stockton Man Shoots Three Women After Being Refused Sex

Ironically, society’s aggressive attempts to preserve and protect the so-called innocence of girlhood continues to keep that threshold low. At or before the age of four, small children stop wearing swim diapers. Boys get swim-trunks, girls get strips of spandex to stretch over their non-existent breasts. Purity rings are given as gifts before a girl hits puberty, to ensure that she knows her self-worth is only as good as her virginity well before her libido kicks in. In middle school, female students are forbidden from wearing leggings, short skirts and spaghetti straps because they might serve as a sexual distraction to their male peers. Similar regulations are imposed at all-girls institutions to ensure that the female students do not lure their perfectly respectable teachers into sending them graphic sexual emails or perfectly respectable passerby into demanding sexual favors.

All of this has the dual effect of one, reinforcing the idea that young women and girls are, in fact, sex objects, and must preemptively adopt behaviors and styles of dress to alter this impression; and two, invalidating the experiences of abuse and objectification by women who have somehow “lost” their childhood innocence, either by adopting so-called “adult” behaviors, or simply by growing up.

It also creates massive confusion in the legal system. Our obsession with the “threat to young women’s innocence” as opposed to the general sexual exploitation and violence that plagues female bodies of all ages is what sends young men (and sometimes women) to prison for having consensual sex with their underage girlfriends, while adult women who report rape are systematically ignored.

READ MORE: Special Report: Investigation Into Sexual Assault At USC

When Tina Fey writes in her autobiography that in a racially and economically diverse group of women, most said that they “first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them,” she alludes to a dark reality of growing up female. The closer a young girl approaches to womanhood, the more sexualized she becomes. Conversely, the more a young girl is sexualized, the more society will see her as a woman.

It makes you wonder... They say we have a huge problem with sexual violence on college campuses. But is it really rape or are we just coming of age?

 

Contact Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here; or follow her on Twitter.



 

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