A commercial plotline runs as follows:
A beautiful, blonde, young woman walks into a room. She is dressed in ripped skinny jeans, a high crop top, and tight leather jacket, paired with accessory sunglasses and matching lipstick, and she carries a fast food bag that she sets on the table. She perches on the couch, and as she seductively eyes the food, the voiceover breathily says, “Well, hello there, gorgeous.” There is a close-up of her lips and tongue as she bites, her mouth open wide, then she suggestively presses her fingers to her mouth. The voiceover comments on her fashion, saying it’s high-quality for low price. She sexily licks her lips and fingers for the remainder of the commercial.
While the point of this commercial is to display the quality of the food, the food is not the focus. The focus of this commercial is the woman, her looks, and her sexuality. The food gets only a quick shot, lasting not even two seconds.
This type of commercial exemplifies over-sexualization in American culture. Unfortunately, this is all too common in this country, as well as in others. More times than it ought to be acceptable, a person’s attractiveness and sexual appeal tends to matter more than their intelligence, feelings, or any other qualities. Not only is this type of conduct unnecessary, but it often flirts with the line of moral appropriateness, making its presence in society even more questionable.
Over-sexualization spreads well beyond advertising. One of its most prominent, yet unnoticed, appearances is in regulations and dress codes. For example, many student dress codes, especially those of female students, are summed up by implementers by demanding outfits be ‘appropriate’ and ‘unrevealing.’ This sounds perfectly acceptable, but the problem is what these words actually mean. “Sensitive parts” of the body are obviously meant to be covered, but parts like shoulders and knees are often lumped into private categories but without sound reason. Shoulders and knees are in no way sexually explicit parts of the body, nor are they parts that receive sexual attention, unless it’s in a regulatory situation. This is evidence of societal over-sexualization because if non-sexual parts, such as knees and shoulders, were left alone and un-scrutinized, then there wouldn’t be a concern over them in dress codes. It is only because of over-sexualization that they seem more taboo than they truly are.
Over-sexualization is prominent in a number of other areas of American culture. Certain occupations are over-sexualized, despite their academically rigorous focuses, and holidays are often permeated by over-sexualization. For proof of these two points, just look at the ‘sexy’ costumes that line Halloween shelves: sexy nurses, sexy teachers, sexy students, sexy firefighters, sexy police officers, or sexy anything. Not only are some of these occupations entirely unrelated to sexuality, but some, like the sexy student, seem to border on creepy implications. And, unfortunately, it is women who take the brunt of this sexual onslaught as a branch of sexism, being viewed as sexual objects rather than as full people.
There is some defense to these situations, as some would say that this over-sexualization isn’t hurting anyone. This is partly true; over-sexualization doesn’t hurt anyone outright or directly, but it contributes to the destructive societal mindset of viewing people only as sexual objects. This, in turn, can lead to sexual misconduct, assault, and rape, and the constant repetitiveness of it only normalizes the offenses.
Another defense would be that this sexualization is nothing more than a marketing ploy, just for fun, and protected by the right to free speech and free economy. This is all true; sex tends to sell products, so it is an excellent marketing ploy; sexy Halloween costumes aren’t made to hurt people, and it is a company’s free right to produce sexually suggestive material, within certain law. It is also a private establishment’s right to place whatever dress code it wishes on those applicable, and it is within an individual’s right to behave as sexually explicitly as they wish, again within certain law. While all of these statements are true, just, and supported, this doesn’t necessarily qualify them as acceptable or appropriate.
The solution isn’t an all-encompassing cultural epiphany. That isn’t realistic. Both the industries and people that exploit and sexualize others for the sake of product have the basic human decency to keep their sexualities and fantasy apart from the rest of public life. This would create a safer and more appropriate society, free of unnecessary and overbearing over-sexualization in public life and industry.