Why It Matters Whether a Toy is Thin and Sexy (Or Not)

So the ‘thinner-and-sexier evolution’ series is kind of winding down, as there are (thankfully, I think?) only a limited number of consumer products that have been around long enough so as to be able to undergo some kind of thin-and-sexy transformation. Besides, at this point, it’s kind of ‘clicked there, browsed that,’ you know? Especially since every toy’s/image’s transformation does some basic variation on the theme of “thin down and sex up.”

Call it the Barbiefication of toys for girls.

Or, you could call it what the American Psychological Association does, which is sexualization. Sexualization, as opposed to healthy sexuality, is defined (by the APA) as any one of the following:

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. (especially relevant to 

As usual, a picture makes things clearer: what if all the Avengers posed like the female one?

This brilliant artistic experiment demonstrates just how pervasive images portraying females as sexually available objects are, such that when we see men posing in ways that signify sexual objectification, it looks strange.

The APA task force writes:

“In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.

Sexualization is damaging, really damaging, in a number of ways. Namely, it

  • has been repeatedly shown to detract from the ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention, thus leading to impaired performance on mental activities such as mathematical computations or logical reasoning
  • has repeatedly been linked with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood
  • has negative consequences in terms of girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality.
  • makes it difficult for some men to find an “acceptable” partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner as a result of over exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness.

The APA has a number of recommendations–you can read the report here if you like–but one thing they mention kind of stuck with me in relationship to what churches can do/have done:

“encourage girls to become activists who speak out and develop their own alternatives.”

As I’ve said before, many of the messages given to young girls in evangelical churches–at least in my experience–encourage passivity, whether muted or outright. So Ruth, in the Old Testament, is not a story about a courageous woman sticking by her destitute mother-in-law, working hard, and making things happen so that “Mara” (bitterness) can be “Naomi” (pleasantness) again, it’s about Ruth’s wonderful feminine qualities in waiting for Boaz’s male leadership.

“someday my Prince will come”

(I’ve seen this in a number of places–namely, in this book, this one, and this one, and in the now-defunct Brio magazine from Focus on the Family.)

While these discourses emphasize ‘purity’ and, in so doing, do something to resist sexualization, I worry that the fear some evangelicals have of being “too feminist” actually means that they acquiesce to the broader culture’s objectification of women by insisting on a female passivity that’s

JUST. NOT. THERE. in the Bible they claim to revere.

Ruth’s a kick-butt type of lady. So’s Jael, so’s Rahab, so’s Tamar, so’s Deborah, so are number of others.

So here are my questions:

  • have evangelical churches offered a coherent alternative to the objectification of girls prevalent in American culture?
  • (because even where they’ve resisted sexualization–at least, sexualization outside marriage–they’ve emphasized passivity in that sphere?)
  • Is it possible to do so while continuing (as some do) to insist upon women’s subordination to men in the church?
  • what can churches, families, and individuals do to resist messages of sexualization?

The Bible Supports Slavery, Or, Why Boaz Should’ve Dissed Ruth

I’m currently reading a great book about one of my very favorite writers of old–Harriet Beecher Stowe.

(She was a writer passionate for justice who stood at barely 5 feet tall and was married to a scholar of the Hebrew Bible–how can I *not* love her!?)

Stowe did a lot to win Christians to the abolitionist cause. Before her, Christians in the US were likely to view the Bible as supporting slavery–the patriarchs appear to have owned slaves, for example, and the New Testament doesn’t openly condemn slavery.

{Philemon, in fact, is a letter from Paul in which he’s, um, returning a runaway slave to his master.}

But Stowe–like most Christians nowadays–was right to discern in Christianity–yea, in the Bible!–a redemptive, liberating call–a duty to struggle against slavery. And she took up that struggle–with her pen. When Lincoln met her, he said, “Is this the little lady who has started this great war?”

Thing is, sometimes even Bible people are, well, unbiblical–and admirably so.

You take the book of Ruth.

Ruth’s a Moabite–the text won’t let us forget that–and her ancestors refused to give hospitality in the form of bread and water to the Israelites as they left Egypt.

This insult led to a prohibition against the Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:3:

“No […] Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation [Hebrew-Bible-speak for, ‘seriously, not ever!’] none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

Complicates things a bit, no?

Boaz doesn’t say, “Oh, hey, I’m sorry for your bad situation, Ruth, but your ancestors insulted mine, so I’m biblically required to do the same to you.” No.

He breaks a ‘biblical’ law to fulfill a Greater Law in sharing bread with Ruth.

And then he marries her.

Does the breaking of the bread trump the breaking of the law?


How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 1


1. This title is, of course, hyperbole.

2. My parents didn’t teach or embody patriarchal attitudes. {Not blaming you, mom! Not blaming you, dad!}

3. I might have to add more disclaimers later.

maiden with unicorn--a symbol of chastity

Criticizing fairy tales for being relentlessly patriarchal is well-trod ground, I know. It’s been nearly 20 years since Ani DiFranco first sang:

i am not a pretty girl

that’s not what i do

i ain’t no damsel in distress

and i don’t need to be rescued

so put me down, punk

maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair

isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?

why is the skinny, conventionally pretty Fiona the 'real' Fiona here when she's NOT in the film?

But I didn’t discover Ani until my senior year of high school, the same year that I saw Shrek and realized the power of the anti-fairy tale. Before that, I uncritically absorbed things that I learned in youth group, from Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine, from I Kissed Dating Goodbye, from the stories and tales swapped at Christian camps. So much of these things, these folklorish bits of pseudo-Biblical wisdom, reinforced the fairy-tale narrative:

1. Be pure

You know. Don’t have sex. Better yet, don’t even kiss. And better still, don’t get emotionally involved. Because any of those things might scar you, mar you, soil you for your “future husband.” Even a crush is a potential slippery slope toward some kind of emotional fornication. Or something. In other words, everything that adolescence awakens is fraught with the potential for irreversible self-destruction.

2. Be pretty

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Proverbs 31:30, “beauty is fleeting,” blah, blah, blah in between pictures of wholesome, all-American looking girls and Focus on the Family-approved hair-and-makeup tips and vague references to weight being one of the things a person can control about his/her looks. Not to mention that you should exercise regularly, watch what you eat, and floss, and look for those things in a potential mate. Don’t skimp on the cardio! Your potential mate might be evaluating you!

look how skinny and pretty these people are! look how she's looking UP at him! THIS, THIS here, is what you get IF you're godly enough.

3. Be passive

The book of Ruth? Not actually about a powerful Moabite go-getter of a woman who commits herself to the mother of her loser dead husband and works her a$$ off to make sure they don’t starve in a time and place that was notoriously harsh for women on their own without men. No. It’s about Ruth keeping busy while waiting for Mr. Right to notice her. (Never mind that Ruth goes to Boaz and pretty much proposes marriage to him.) The ‘godly girl’ waits for God to write her love story, which means waiting for some guy to write it.

So then there’s me, 14 or 15 years old, outgrowing my American Girl doll and growing out of my GapKids clothes, realizing I’d never be a ballerina and resisting admitting any crushes on any boys anywhere.

Could I admit to myself (let alone my parents, LET ALONE the boy I had a crush on) that I had a crush?

No. That might be some kinda emotional fornication. Or something. Not pure.

Could I accept the changes in my body as good, as normal, as God-given?

No. I could not. My body was now, in Ani DiFranco’s words again, a

“breakable, takeable body/an ever-increasingly valuable body/…a woman had come in the night to replace me/deface me.”

My body was now a “temptation” to boys, something to be well-hidden, well-covered, well-controlled. Oh, but beautiful. And pure. And passive.

Putting those things together in a culture that’s already pretty well body-obsessed and eating-disordered? Meant that somehow, pleasing God got tied up in my mind with exercising enormous control over my body. Excess/loose flesh signified sin and was certain to displease God and horrify potential suitors. Furthermore, since my whole feminine duty was summed up in “waiting purely & patiently” for life/love/whatever to happen to me, my endless project of self-perfection was, to my mind, righteous rather than self-absorbed.

{More to come tomorrow…}