We’re living in an age when human dignity is under attack. Injustice has always existed, sadly, and women and children have always been vulnerable parties in society, but today it would seem that women and girls face different kinds of dangers—the insidious kind where we can be tempted to partake in them ourselves.
Following the current events in news headlines, it’s easy to identify some of the graver scourges women and girls face today—sexual assault on college campuses, outrageous harassment in the workplace and sex trafficking in our neighborhoods. These are real and need to be addressed, stopped and mended so that we can help those suffering to be treated with the dignity they deserve, to recover and to flourish again. But just as these larger harms exist, smaller harms exist too, hurting the dignity of men and women, even if in more subtle and deceptive ways—ways that may evenquietly contribute to the perpetuation of the larger problems.
One of those problems that manifests itself in large and small ways is the objectification of women. It’s present when we notice a guy’s not looking at our face when he’s talking to us. It’s there when the uniform for nearly every female singer at the Video Music Awards is a thong-like leotard (alongside their fully clothed male counterparts), as if their bodies are louder than their talent. And it’s present when we want to keep changing just that one thing about ourselves, like we’re a photo in need of touching up, to reach some unreal ideal. Objectification—viewing people as objects to be acted upon, as opposed to humans possessing dignity and freedom—is at play when someone is kidnapped, as well as when someone is wanted for their body alone. It can also be at play when we look in the mirror or turn our cameras on ourselves for a selfie. Unfortunately, objectifying imagery is everywhere around us—on TV, in music lyrics, in store advertisements and, of course, everywhere on social media. It has a way of rubbing off on us. The problem is, when we objectify ourselves—when we dress in a way to get attention for shock value, rather than to be appreciated for who we are interiorly—or when we allow others to objectify us, we are participating in the very larger cultural problem. In addition to prayer, self-examination and grace through the sacraments, we can take action to fight for human dignity in our personal lives and communities. Here are some ways you can start to make a difference today.
Say positive things about yourself, to yourself and around other young women. This is another way of thanking God for what he’s given us; we are his handiwork after all, and so are all the women around us, despite how often we are tempted to forget that and let self-critical words slip out.
Recent research shows us that one of the greatest indicators of a girl’s self image is how her mother talks about herself. A 2015 report from Commonsense Media found that “5- to 8-year-olds who think their moms are dissatisfied with their bodies are more likely to feel dissatisfied with their own bodies.” This is no small thing, considering eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and especially affect girls. To combat passing down bad self-image habits to younger generations, the report recommended moms avoid saying negative things about themselves after looking at a mirror or photo around kids, and avoid commenting about other people’s weight. We can all throw on the positive self-respect as well.
Limit your consumption of objectifying and boundary-pushing content. And I’m not just saying this because you’d have to go to confession, depending on what it was and if it was intentionally searched. In addition to taking care of your soul, monitoring what you look at is about taking care of your mind and your body. Research shows that exposure to explicit imagery influences us in subtle ways, including making us think abnormal things are normal and desensitizing us to problematic behavior in real life. For example, a 2010 study revealed as much as 90 percent of pornography shows aggression against women, and a 2011 study found that women who watch pornography are less likely to call a sexually coercive situation what it is. Much of online media, Snapchat stories and cable TV shows, while not explicit pornography, are nevertheless desensitizing us as they push the envelope. As dignified and multi-faceted people who are beautiful, smart, creative and seeking to make a difference in the world, we can grow stronger in avoiding and calling out the lies in media that portray women unrealistically and one-dimensionally.
Intentionally consume, share and produce dignifying and uplifting content! As Saint Paul urged the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). The Holy Spirit urges us the same today. There may be a lot of junk out there in media, music and peer conversations, but there are also a lot of opportunities to see beauty. What activities bring you joy? What art or live performances do you enjoy watching? It may take more effort for us to go out and find these things, but it’s always worth it, because whatever is true and excellent will always bring a greater sense of peace and reward than the emptier offerings of the day.
Volunteer at a local women’s charity. Offer your assistance at a battered women’s shelter or eating disorder facility. Donate time or resources to a pregnancy help center. Volunteer opportunities like these do good on both ends—they are tangible ways to treat women with the dignity they deserve, while at the same time, they allow us to witness the strength of the women enduring crises we may not be able to imagine. These are ever-important reminders of how dignity is internal and may not always look as you’d expect.
If you can’t make it to serve in-person at a facility, consider donating financially to support the work of organizations that fight for human dignity by helping women who are recovering from trafficking, domestic abuse and other harms. Share Missing Person alerts. Many missing young women and girls are sex-trafficked and exploited—yes, even in the United States. The National Center for Missing Children states that “of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2016, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking.” We can help fight these scourges by following the NCMEC on social media and sharing the alerts in our areas. We can also put the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) in our phones, and report whenever we see suspicious activity, such as a suggestively dressed girl in the company of an older male. Formerly trafficked women have told me how frequently they were in plain sight of people who could have seen the signs, but either didn’t connect the dots or were too cowardly to speak up.
Stick together. Start a rosary group. Attend a women’s Bible study program like Walking with Purpose. Host a wine and cheese with women who inspire you. Keep up with your girlfriends, and open up to them about what’s going on in your life. Research shows that girlfriends are a significant indicator of mental health and are helpful for guarding against depression. You can be that guard for your friend as well. Further, too many violations against women are ones that thrive when kept in secret; when women open up about them with each other, we can start healing, help other women avoid similar pitfalls, be reminded that we’re not alone or find the strength to speak out about an injustice. No matter what, by scheduling regular quality girl time with people who appreciate our values, we’re reminded that we’re not alone on the quest for Christ’s peace, joy and renewal in our lives.
MARY ROSE SOMARRIBA, who completed a 2012 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship on the connections between pornography and sex trafficking, is a writer and editor living in Cleveland. Find her at maryrosesomarriba.com