Body image and sexualization in representations of women

Research on the representation of women in the last decade has focused particularly upon the twin concerns of ‘body image’ and the ‘sexualization’ of women’s and girls bodies. There have been numerous attempts to persuade companies and media organizations to move away from the use of very thin, waif-like models in adverts and magazines, and to embrace a wider diversity of body shapes[176]. After the Labour government’s Body Image Summit in 2000, several media organizations signed up to voluntary codes of practice in this regard[177], and there have been further summits in recent years[178].

Discussions of body image more generally have also been challenged by the proliferation of ‘Love your body’ messages and advertising campaigns circulating in the wake of the famous Dove commercials of the early 2000s[179]. These purport to show ‘ordinary’ women and to celebrate messages such as ‘beauty at every size’, though it is clear that they generally focus on slim and conventionally attractive women. The impact of these new messages remain, as yet, underexplored.

In relation to ‘sexualization’, one of the earliest charges leveled at mainstream media was that it objectified girls and women, portraying them as sex objects to be consumed by audiences. However, recent research presents a more complex picture, arguing that women are rarely presented as docile, passive, sex objects, but are more frequently shown as active, desiring sexual subjects, who hold and return the viewer’s gaze, and are portrayed as powerful agents expressing their own sexualities[180]. This shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification has been much discussed in the last decade. Some argue that it represents a step forward in portrayals of women, whilst others suggest that it makes critical engagement more difficult because the ‘objectification’ is shown as self chosen rather than as imposed by others. There is speculation that a new form of ‘up for it’ sexiness is becoming compulsory for young women, replacing the earlier cultural valuation of sexual innocence for women, and leading to new – as yet unexplored – pressures and opportunities[181].

Another area of development in this field of research is the increasingly common sexualized representation of men’s bodies too, as eroticized depictions move out of gay media and into the mainstream. There remains considerable discussion in academic literature about whether the idealized sexualized representation of women’s and men’s bodies holds different meanings, rather than contributing to an egalitarian visual culture in which we are all ‘equally objectified’.

Representations of men

176. British Medical Association (2000). Eating Disorders, Body Image and the Media. London: British Medical Association.
180. Gill, R. (2003). From sexual objectification to sexual subjectification: The resexualisation of women’s bodies in the media. Feminist Media Studies, 3(1), 99-106.
181. Gill, R. & Scharff, C. (Eds.) (2011). New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Representations of men