How young is too young to teach kids about sexual objectification?

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My body is not an object shirt from Etsy seller GreenBoxBoutique
My body is not an object shirt from Etsy seller GreenBoxBoutique

I’m an aunt to a few beautiful nieces. Recently, some situations have come up which make me, as an intersectional feminist, question how to speak to my sister, let alone my nieces, about sexual objectification. I think it would be woefully ignorant to shield them from it, and the necessary discussions around it. I know my nieces already see it all around them, they just don’t know what it’s all about yet.

How young is too young to teach kids about sexual objectification? Beyond that, has anyone got any ideas on how to break down sexual objectification for young people to understand? There should be levels of explanation, as there are levels of comprehension and understanding of the world as people grow up.

I would be grateful for any discussion or input that might arise from a conversation around this. There is so little information below university level of what sexual objectification is, or what it can do. -Randa

Ah the wonderful world of unwanted sexual objectification. Right? How old were you when the concept hit you? I remember being a kid and walking down the street, when a couple dudes yelled something at me about my boobs (I was an early grower). It shocked, embarrassed, and scared me. I wish I had felt like I had someone to talk to about it. But I felt ashamed of myself, like I had done something wrong to warrant it. So I kept it to myself.

That’s why I love this question! I feel like if some wise auntie figure had pulled me aside, took me out for ice cream, and said, “here’s what’s up. Here’s why it sucks. Here’s why it’s not your fault. Here’s what I do about it.”

So, what say you Homies? What are your thoughts of teaching kid about sexual objectification?

Comments on How young is too young to teach kids about sexual objectification?

  1. My opinion probably won’t be the popular one, which is why I’m sharing it. Different opinions make the world go ’round and all.
    Unless your nieces bring the topic up, don’t talk about it.

    I grew up in a conservative Christian home. I was raised to believe all kinds of things about my body and about what boys/men would want from my body. Yet I’ve never been catcalled, never been objectified, never been assaulted, and never made to feel unsafe because of my body or because of being female.
    When I was a teen, being told to be afraid is what made me afraid. And when what I was told to be afraid of never happened, I stopped trusting the people who told me to be afraid and I became concerned that there was something wrong with me. How horribly ugly must I be if men, those perverted creatures who will objectify any female anywhere, didn’t notice me? Was I not good enough to notice? That only led to me comparing myself to other women and seeing how much I lacked.
    Maybe your nieces won’t react the same way I did, but I really think this is a conversation that should be led by them or by their parents, not a well-meaning aunt.

    • As more comments come in, I think you’re going to find that you’re in the minority in terms of never being sexually harassed or assaulted. (And, hey, that’s great for you!)

      Grown men started yelling at me on the street when I was 11 or 12. It happened once when I was with my dad and he just laughed it off, which confused me. Being yelled at was always scary to me, but maybe it wasn’t a big deal and I should be ok with it?

      I think there are ways to talk to kids about objectification and body autonomy without being too scary. Remind kids that if someone touches them or makes comments they’re uncomfortable with it’s not ok. At a minimum, let them know it’s unacceptable behavior and they don’t have to just be ok with it.

        • I’ll also chime in that I don’t recall being sexually objectified as a young child, but I do recall a time when I was 17 and then a few times as an adult.

          But in contrast, a 12-year-old I currently volunteer with has told me at least half a dozen stories of boys or even adult men saying things that are sexual objectification. It pains me how much she’s been exposed to as a kid, and how she has to tell them, “I’m twelve years old!”

          So, yeah, experience varies WIDELY. :-/

        • It’s been very, very rare for me, too, and I’m pretty happy with how I look. I don’t have a lot going on in the T&A department and I think that’s some of it – the sort of trash that likes to yell out seems like have an extra fondness for jubblyparts. I also rarely walk around alone in areas or at times when catcalling would be most common, just ’cause I’ve never had to live and operate in a big city (we drive evvvverywhere here.) I too went through a period of “huh, wtf is wrong with me if I’m the only girl not getting yelled at?”

          I don’t think that’s reason to skip over the conversation entirely though. I don’t know if it’s the aunt’s place to bring it up – depends on family dynamics.

          But god, what do you even say? “Sometimes men are pigs and will yell stuff out at you. Ignore them. Except sometimes when you ignore them they get more angry. Or yell at them to shut them down. Except sometimes when you yell at them they get more angry.” We don’t have a good solution so I’m not sure that girls can really be prepared for that. Helping them process it after it happens will be the domain of whatever adult (or friend, or nobody) they confide to about it.

      • Yeah literally every single woman I know has been sexually harassed more than once. I’m glad to hear that there are some people who have never had to experience that, but they are definitely in the minority.

    • On the one hand, I also have the experience of never really having been catcalled or harassed. For whatever reason, I live in a weird bubble (in a major U.S. city) where the main street interactions I’ve had are “Good morning”s and/or things like asking for money that are totally unrelated to my gender. If I’m out alone at night in a less-than-safe neighborhood I’m much more worried about getting robbed than I am about getting assaulted. And it’s true that because of certain conversations around harassment and assault I’ve occasionally wondered if any of that was somehow reflective of me and, if so, what it meant. I also had some conversations with my dad growing up about how guys were “only after one thing” that then didn’t jive at all with my own, lucky experience. So I think I can relate to a fair amount of what you’re saying.

      On the other hand, I don’t think that means objectification should just not be talked about. Honestly, with kids (and partly based on some decent comprehensive sex ed curriculum I’ve seen) I’d probably start by talking about objectification in the media—it’s super easy to see in ads especially, can be noticed by/affects everyone, and can feel less personal/threatening to talk about. From there I think it’s easier to branch out to the ideas of how there are more and less extreme examples of it, that kids may absolutely see varying degrees of it around them in real life, and that it’s totally okay/appropriate if it makes them feel uncomfortable and, if so, what are some things they can do about it.

      • I agree that talking about gender in the media is a great place to start. It could also be part of another conversation about ads – the hows & whys of selling images, the ways males & females are portrayed, how they differ from reality, why these images aren’t the best role models, and why a person is much more than their looks. Depending on their ages, conversations about the lack of truth in advertising and how media images don’t reflect reality might be a good starting point. Toys aren’t always as great as they are portrayed, wearing the “it” jeans or shoes won’t make you the most popular kid, and women selling miracle creams have often had surgery. I remember conversations about how ads portray only one dimension of a person and why it is important to fully develop our interests and not focus solely on our looks. As my grandmother used to say “pretty is as pretty does” which I think may have also been used in the movie “Forest Gump”.

        As a side note, I remember as a child learning about how the feminist movement began as a response to women being objectified by men. Now our media portrayals of women seem to be all about self-objectification as a means of self-promotion. Early on, many feminists seemed to be OK with this as it appeared to shift the balance of sexual power, but I’m not sure it is better. Plastic surgery and eating disorders seem to be on the rise and “mean girl” behavior is now presented as the norm. I really don’t know how to change it, but for the sake of the children growing up around me, I wish I did.

    • Equally unpopular opinion, I loved being catcalled as a teenager and beyond. I’ve never gotten the exlicit gross catcalls other friends complain about, and I’ve never been threatened when shooting someone down. But being catcalled or flirted with by strangers made me feel sexy and confident. It isn’t until my late 20s and early 30s when all my faminist friends are always talking about how upsetting and disgusting catcalls are that they make me feel unpleasantly objectified instead of complimented, because I’ve been told so many times that’s how I should feel.

      • There’s kind of a wide range, y’know? Like if a stranger comes up and tells me I look stunning or politely asks for my number, I’m still going to feel uncomfortable in an “I’m super introverted and don’t want to talk to strangers” way but I won’t feel threatened or creeped out, and it might give me a little boost in confidence.

        But then there’s stuff like… an acquaintance was recently on a group bike ride and an older guy came up, acknowledged that she had a boyfriend, and then said “I really like your butt… do you know your measurements? That’s a compliment, I just want to know the volume. You don’t know them?” and then ran away when her bf came over. THAT is creepy as fuck.

    • I generally agree with you. I had to first leave the country and then move to the east coast before I experienced gross or persistent street harassment. Before then, I’d only gotten “Smile!” once, and because it didn’t mesh with what the Internet told me to expect as a girl, I did wonder if something was wrong with me. So I don’t think this conversation should be a “brace yourself” one but a “you might experience this and if so…” conversation.
      But, I think there are multiple forms of objectification beyond street harassment that we can discuss with children, such as media objectification or societal pressure to look more modest or more sexy. That was one I did battle with as soon as puberty was on collective schoolyard radar, and is probably the best starting place for young kids.

  2. As a parent, I would be pretty upset if a family member decided to step in and have a conversation with my kid about a topic like this without speaking to me. But I also do think that talking about objectification young is important. I have a son, and by late elementary school I noticed that his comments and compliments about boys were about things they DID and comments about girls were about how they LOOKED. I pointed this out to him, and have continued to call it when I see it. When he’s talking about a girl and it’s skewing toward looks, we asked him to brainstorm 3 great things about what they do (I like the drawing you did in art, you were the fastest at gym, your Minecraft avatar is cool). When he’s headed to a playdate, we talk about the good qualities of his friends (male or female) both before and after, to reinforce that character and actions are what he needs to focus on, in himself and his friends.

    I know he’s getting other messages about girls from peers in middle school, so it’s important that we help him proactively form the habit of treating girls as competent, complex people rather than just giving him “don’ts” about how he should treat them. So far, this has been really positive, and his best friend right now is a girl, who is “cool at Minecraft” and “has great superhero moves,” and I’ve never heard him say a thing about her physical appearance.

    • I noticed that his comments and compliments about boys were about things they DID and comments about girls were about how they LOOKED.

      Just want to say bravo to you, momma, for notifying this child-appropriate example and talking with your kiddo about it. *applause emojis*

    • Super agree with knowing your boundaries as a “not parent” in this situation. Regardless of whether you think the conversation is necessary or right, the parent may have other ideas or thoughts on how they want to teach. Defer to them first – they are the legal guardian, it’s not up to you to take on that responsibility. (Said as a very involved, loving aunt of two nephews I adore, yet am not parent of).

  3. I don’t have a great answer for age, but I do have a suggestion for beginning the discussion – are you at all familiar with the show Steven Universe? If you’re not, I can pretty much guarantee your nieces are. It’s on Cartoon Network right now and it’s a wonderful spin on the great magical girl anime of the 80’s – with the twist that the protagonist is a little boy, Steven.

    Steven is a member of the Crystal Gems, a race of powerful alien, but he has a human father and lives in a human city. His best friend, Connie, is a human girl. Crystal gems have the ability to ‘fuse’ with each other and create a new, more powerful entity, and because Steven is half-human he discovers he can fuse with his friend Connie to create Stevonnie, a being that presents as a femme or intersex older teenager. The first episode Stevonnie is introduced is a wonderful, and nearly wordless, evocation of the power and strength that you feel as you grow up, and how terrible it is when that power is objectified by others.

    Watching the episode, called “Alone Together,” and discussing the themes might be an easy and nonthreatening way to begin the discussion. And it goes without saying you should check out the rest of the show too! If you’re an intersectional feminist, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  4. I think that when things like that begin is when we should begin to talk about it, making sure we don’t phrase it in a way that comes off accusatory. Definitely pass it by their guardian/parent first. I agree, no one would want to overstep the boundaries and make things more uncomfy than they have to be.
    I also think, woman to woman, the convo is improved; my father didn’t help me very much when it came to me getting heckled. My mother was upfront and let me know that was unacceptable and how to respond or not to, on my choosing. I think an early start helped me. I developed early, as well, and my mom kept in mind that the way she went about it had to match my maturity level. Just because I’m adult-shaped and sized doesn’t mean I’m an adult!

  5. I think there are things you can do, as an aunt, to personally send a message about body autonomy and personal agency without actually having a conversation about it. One thing I do is, when my sister or another adult family member or friend tells their kids “ok, hug auntie goodbye!” or something like that, I ALWAYS say “only if you want to!” And if they hesitate, I say “want to give me a high five or blow me a kiss instead?” and give them options beside physical affection. Every time! Because sometimes they want to hug and snuggle, and sometimes they don’t. Saying yes once doesn’t mean always yes! This is a great article I found about actively modeling and teaching about body privacy and personal agency, which I believe directly intersect with objectification (or identifying and avoiding it).

  6. I have a 4 year old daughter and sexual objectification of women is common enough that it’s already come up without any need to have a Sit Down Conversation About Objectification. I don’t mean catcalling–I mean shopping for children’s clothes at a big box store. It’s impossible to shield kids from it, it’s only possible to pretend it doesn’t exist, which, frankly, I believe comes across as condoning it.

    I find I end up following similar formulas with most “difficult” conversation topics with my daughter. “Some people think that…” followed by “but I think that…” (or “your dad and I think that…”) At this age, only 4, most of our conversations around sexism have been along the lines of “Some people think that girls and boys should wear different clothes and do different things, but I think that all people should be able to do and wear what they like no matter what gender they are.” We don’t have to get into the reasons the shorts in the girls’ section are shorter than the shorts in the boys’ section to talk about why I’m unhappy that they’re different.

  7. I would like to meet men or boys sitting in a group, seeing you passing by and and ignore. Because Men do that all the time to women or girls. The subjects may vary, it could be catcalling, wistling, or just casually say ” Hey Pretty.”

    I’m glad that i never experienced sexual objectifying, maybe some catcallings, but actually the one who catcalled would get pissed off if we boldly say hello directly to their face.

    and i live inIndonesia anyway.

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