“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].
Q: Why is it that my girlfriend always dresses so slutty? It seems that every time we go out, she dresses in tight and revealing clothing. Of course, I find her sexy, but don’t really appreciate all the male attention she attracts.
A: You aren’t alone in your feelings. Many men express similar objections to their wives and girlfriends dressing seductively in public. And while your concerns are understandable, the issue of women portraying themselves as “eye candy” is really a double-edged sword.
Females in our society are socialized to consider and present themselves in sexualized ways. Beginning in early childhood, little girls are the target of marketing campaigns designed to emphasize and internalize a sexualized self-concept. We are all aware of the controversy surrounding the iconic “Barbie” fashion dolls who are routinely outfitted in scantily clad clothing styles. The newer “Bratz” fashion dolls take it one step further with their large pouty lips, make up, and seductive poses and clothing. One semester, while teaching Psychology of Women, a student brought in a “Baby Bratz” doll that was advertised for ages 3 and up. The doll had big eyes, full pouty lips, make-up and donned a bikini top and thong diaper with a heart on the crotch! Just last week, while looking through a discount store flier, I was shocked to see an ad for little girl’s “bras and panties” that mimicked a Victoria’s Secret-esque lingerie style. The panties were high-cut bikinis and the low-cut bras had padded, molded cups to ensure an artificial appearance of larger breasts!
While these sexual expectations begin in early childhood, they certainly don’t stop there. Women are inundated with a consistent flow of sexual expectation from all avenues of mass media. Every fashion magazine cover boasts “tips” on how to sexually “satisfy your man.” From television commercials/programming and movies to print ads and clothing styles – females are saturated with the notion that they must present themselves in sexually provocative ways to gain and maintain status and relationship satisfaction.
I could easily write a book on how restrictive and damaging this is to the health and well-being of women – but the focus here concerns the impact of this hyper-sexualization on the relationships women are seeking to maintain. From the hetero-male’s standpoint – there are two sides to this coin. On one hand, males enjoy the benefits of directing their gaze (and hormones) on women who present themselves in sexually provocative ways. Traditionally, sexualized females have been relegated to the domains of the entertainment industry (television/movies/video-games/music), strip-clubs and the pages of Playboy. Within these contexts, men may “freely” enjoy the benefits of sexual arousal – without the personal costs. However, once the source of seduction comes from their own intimate partners and ventures from the bedroom into the public eye – a very different dynamic emerges. Historically, men have drawn stark distinctions between women they “play” with and women they “marry.” The “big-breasted bimbo” may be good for a one-night-stand of fun and games, but inappropriate material for a “wife and mother.”
While some men enjoy show-casing their “sexy” girlfriends/wives as trophies to their manhood – many men are uncomfortable with the sexual attention their own mates attract when attempting to comply and compete with our social standard of female sexuality. But herein lies the ironic complexities of the situation. Women are keenly aware and hyper-sensitive to the fact that men enjoy looking at scantily-clad females. This awareness, when combined with the socialized expectation of their own sexual presentation – results in a “Catch-22″ quandary. For example, your girlfriend might reason that in order to “keep you satisfied,” she must emphasize her sex-appeal in public. On the one hand, if she dutifully follows the “rules” she’s been taught all her life – she finds herself criticized for looking “slutty.” But, if she down-plays her sex-appeal by dressing modestly when in public – she runs the very real risk that you will be ogling other women who are scantily clad.
Double-standards rarely result in social stability and intimate relationships are no exception. In a society that idolizes and celebrates the superficiality of sex – it becomes increasingly difficult to establish – let alone maintain – meaningful, substantive intimate relationships. The deeper we dig ourselves into the hole of female sexual objectivity, the more difficult it becomes to harness the sanctuary of trust, love and commitment that represents the cornerstone of human existence.