Are “Sexy” Magazine Covers Empowering For Women? This Evidence Says No

Apparently sexualized media is bad for our mental health, and here's why I'm not surprised.
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Apparently sexualized media is bad for our mental health, and here's why I'm not surprised.
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Art Credit: Cate Parr

The cover of this month’s Women’s Health magazine features actress Cobie Smulders (Robin from How I Met Your Mother) posing topless, with only her arms covering her bare chest. If you find that surprising for a magazine called Women’s Health, consider the May cover of Golf Digest: It boasts a similar topless-with-strategic-cover-up photo of athlete Lexi Thompson.

To be honest, I can't say these covers surprise me. Nude photos of successful women make frequent appearances in the media. Women’s Health, along with CosmopolitanSports IllustratedMaxim, and a slew of other popular magazines regularly feature sexually explicit content and imagery.

Although nude images on magazine covers have lost their power to shock, they're still a relatively recent phenomenon. The degree to which women are sexualized in magazines, in song lyrics, on television, in video games, on the Internet, in advertising, and in music videos today is unparalleled. As Dawn Hawkins, vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, describes it, “Yesterday’s pornography is today’s mainstream media.” Somehow, we have gotten to a point where a topless photo of a well-respected woman on the cover of a women’s health magazine barely raises eyebrows. Whether or not this is a positive development is a subject of much debate.

In my experience, discussion of sexuality often hits a snag when the conversation turns to how the female body is represented in the media. For starters, the issue divides feminists. On one hand, there are those who actively campaign against any censorship of the female body—saying it's not women's bodies but rather society’s tendency to objectify them that's at issue. Female sexuality ought to be celebrated, and nudity in magazines encourages open discussion that empowers women.

On the other hand, there are those, like myself, who would say that it is disingenuous to think that the naked human body can be wholly separated from its sexual aspects, and that even if it could be, I'm not sure we'd want it to be. Sexual attraction is good and serves a great purpose, and I don't think desensitizing ourselves to it does us any favors. That being the case, the recklessness with which we discuss and depict female sexuality has had serious negative consequences on society, and women in particular—not the least of which is the present day reality that basic nonsexual functions of the female body (such as breastfeeding) have been distorted to the point that mothers feel the need to hide themselves in bathrooms in order to feed their babies.

To even attempt a productive discussion about this topic, though, I must first clarify one thing: Opposing the hypersexualization of women in the media is not the same as denouncing or demonizing female sexuality. The female body is striking, beautiful, and awesome, in the most literal meaning of the word. I would not be writing this article if there were not something both incredible and formidable about female sexuality. And the fact that female sexuality is such a constant and controversial topic of discussion speaks to its magnificence.

Female sexuality, like physical strength, is powerful. But, like physical strength, it can be abused, it can be exploited, and it can be used to hurt rather than to help. Sexuality, too, has its victims, and evidence suggests that women make up a surprisingly high percentage of that total. So what are responsible media outlets to do?

Enter Victoria Hearst. Granddaughter to the famed newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (yes, that Hearst), Victoria raised the issue of Cosmo's hypersexualized covers and content with her family's media company years ago, with unsuccessful results.Now, Victoria has teamed up with the NCSE to launch a campaign devoted to educating people about the harmful effects of hypersexualization of women in today’s media. Atpress conference held last week, Hearst hosted a panel of experts to discuss the negative consequences of overly sexualized depictions of women, and the evidence is fairly damning.

Referencing a study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2010), psychiatrist Dr. Miriam Grossman, who has devoted her career to studying the impact of sexual media on youth, stated: “From a medical and psychological perspective, it is difficult to overstate the dangers to girls and young women of the lifestyle celebrated by [magazines such as] Cosmopolitan.” And she's not exaggerating. The list of negative consequences—physical, psychological, emotional, and cultural—that the APA reports is nothing short of staggering. “Ample evidence,” the report reads, “indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes.”

While it's impossible to cover all of the report's findings here, a few consequences in particular deserve attention.

First, the APA found that sexualization, a worldview heavily focused on or shaped by sex, is linked to the mental health problems most common among women, including depression, low self-esteem, and—notably—eating disorders. Several studies suggest that the media plays a large role in shaping a woman’s body image and that girls exposed to sexualizing media are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction. Given that twenty million women (and ten million men) in the U.S. have suffered from a clinically significant eating disorder, and that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, the connection between eating disorders and the media should not be ignored.

Among the report’s most striking findings is that of sexualization’s effect on cognitive function. One study is particularly illustrative. “While alone in a dressing room, college students were asked to try on and evaluate either a swimsuit or a sweater. While they waited for ten minutes wearing the garment, they completed a math test. The results revealed that young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters. No differences were found for young men.” Essentially, the heightened preoccupation with appearance that women felt while showing more skin affected their ability to think effectively.

Perhaps worst of all, the APA found that sexualization contributes to the perpetuation of sexism and gender bias. Findings across a number of studies show that exposure to sexualized or sexually objectifying content negatively affects people’s attitudes toward, perceptions of, and behavior around women. A particularly worrisome discovery was that women and men exposed to the sexually objectifying images of women commonly found in mainstream media were significantly more accepting of “rape myths, sexual harassment, sex role stereotypes, interpersonal violence, and adversarial sexual beliefs about relationships” than those in control conditions.

The list of findings goes on, and none of them are positive.

So are nude cover photos empowering? When we look at the facts and observe the harm that our hypersexualized culture is causing, it becomes difficult to believe that the rise of sexually explicit content in mainstream media helps women. Quite the contrary, it appears to be speedily leading us to emotional, physical, and psychological chaos.

Certainly there is a degree of freedom in the ability to dress the way you like, and the freedom to do something always carries with it a power of sorts. But when nudity becomes a requirement for attention, when sex appeal becomes a prerequisite for airtime, and when one’s physical assets determine whether or not her achievements will be recognized, sexual liberation becomes sexual subjugation. As women—who are so much more than just our bodies—we deserve better than to be enslaved by our sexuality.