The Society for the
Study of Social Issues


It’s no Wonder:
Girls and Women are Undermined, not Empowered, by Sexual Objectification

Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD


It seems like some sort of cruel joke that, only weeks after revelations of a United States candidate for president’s dehumanizing views of girls and women as nothing but sexual body parts to objectify and violate, the United Nations should select a highly sexualized comic book fantasy figure as their inspiration for female empowerment. Yes, DC Entertainment’s Wonder Woman has been named the UN’s ambassador for gender equity. Okay, there is no denying she is a bad ass. She’s a powerful character, with her bullet-deflecting bracelets, invisible airplane and golden lasso. In addition to her nearly-nude costume’s potential to offend a goodly portion of the world’s religious population, twenty years of psychological science convinces me that this highly sexualized cartoon-woman hardly empowers real girls and women. Quite the contrary.        

Sexualization and self-objectification can be thought of as benevolent sexism (Glick & Fiske, 1996).  We all, especially women and girls get a boost from comments about looking nice or for being popular. This is why choosing Wonder Woman as an ambassador is hard to view as problematic, and also why the negative impacts of daily exposure to impossibly perfect, unreal, sexualized “wonders” on girls’ and young women’s sense of their capabilities and worth can be hard to detect. Girls want to feel pretty and sexy and dress in the ways that get them attention and compliments. However, two decades of psychological science research have shown that the outcomes of sexualization and self-objectification, especially from the media are far from benevolent.

It comes as no surprise that media and marketers bombard us relentlessly with sexualized and sexually objectified images of females (Ward, 2016). These media depictions are typically white, thin, and impossibly narrow-waisted yet big-breasted. They are increasingly not of “real” women. They are photoshopped and then broadcast to the farthest reaches of the world. Wonder Woman is literally not a real woman, fighting crime in her cleavage-enhancing bustier, sanitized, deodorized and denuded, nary a hair out of place or a bead of sweat to show for her efforts.

And studies show that exposure to such media and marketing is not harmless. Viewing sexualized images of women leads both men and women as well as boys and girls to have diminished views of girls’ and women’s competence, morality and humanity (see Daniels, 2012; Daniels & Zurbriggen, 2016; Ward, 2016). Such exposure is correlated with girls’ increasingly valuing sexualized career ambitions over science or other skill based career paths (Coy, 2009; Murnen & Smolak, 2013). In one survey of 15–19 year old girls, 63% selected fashion model and 25% lap dancer as their ideal profession from a list of choices that included teacher and doctor (Davies, Spencer, Quinn & Gerhardstein, 2007).          

In an environment where sexual objectification leads many girls and young women to adopt others perspective of them, to self-objectify, they prioritize appearance over competence. In fact self-objectification is evident in girls as young as 11 years old (Grabe, Hyde & Lindberg, 2007). In our original theorizing, my colleague Barb Fredrickson and I (1997) theorized that one consequence of self-objectification – the excessive primping and grooming, anxiety over body image and body shame and the fret over the failure to meet those standards - takes up intellectual and motivational energy that could be devoted to more productive pursuits. Undeniably, twenty years of research has validated our theory. In one study of diverse 10-14 year old girls attending a summer camp, those who scored higher on a measure of self-objectification that assessed their levels of “internalized sexualization” (McKenney & Bigler, 2016a; e.g., “If I were to upload pictures of myself to the internet, I would make sure that I looked hot”) earned lower grades in science and earned lower standardized test scores in math (McKenney & Bigler, 2016b). In a second study of 11-15 year old girls, higher scores on the internalized sexualization measure were correlated with greater time applying makeup and styling hair for a simulated newscast and less time focused on practicing for the presentation of the simulated newscast (McKenney & Bigler, 2016b).  

Dear UN: you can do better than a comic book fantasy character as your ambassador for addressing such pressing concerns as gender-based violence, pay and educational inequity, and reproductive justice. Surely there is someone – real or imaginary – smart, kind, and mighty who wears clothing that she feels both comfortable and beautiful in to inspire and empower the world’s girls to reach their highest potential.



Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin