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Episode 19: Sex Sells? Or Insecurity Sells… (2/2)

In the second part of our conversation with Caroline Heldman, we talk about the consequences of marketers and the media having the power to shape our culture. We learn that the average teenager is consuming 10.5 hours of media a day and we ask: What happens when the people with the most influence over them are the same ones who profit from their low self-esteem — and care more about their wallet than their wellbeing? We also touch on the mental health crisis of millennials and whether or not social media should be called “anti-social” media. Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics with a specialty in media, gender, and race — and the president of The Representation Project. **Please remember to rate and leave a review for our podcast! Give us your feedback Follow us on Instagram! Facebook BBXX website Sign up for our digital “book” club — a twice-weekly curation of the best digital content about identity, sexuality, intimacy, and relationships!
The transcript wasn’t added for this episode.

This week we speak with Caroline Heldman, professor and executive director of The Representation Project. We discuss the influence of media – especially social media, the intimacy crisis we all face, and how marketers have set the beauty standards of our culture. We hope this episode helps you better understand our culture and the unrealistic expectations we are all faced with when beauty is the yardstick by which women are judged.


Caroline grew up Pentecostal Evangelical which was very gender stereotypical, however, she found her awakening through Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique which challenged what she was learning and being cultured into at home and at church.

Film Recommendations

  • Miss Representation: Girls and women receive many damaging themes and messages growing up in our culture – most notably that their bodies are the most important things about them, that their worth is in their beauty, and an erasure of women in leadership and positions of power.
  • The Mask you Live In: Pressures to be masculine damage boys and men because they are taught to be emotionally bereft, to be in control, to be emotionless, to be aggressive. “The Man Box” limits male human expression and men suffer the drastic consequences. Because of not wanting to appear weak, vulnerable, or feminine, men seek help less, which is especially damaging when men do not seek out mental health care.

Influence of Media

Parental influence diminishes as kids age – with social media and media being the thing that kids engage with most (over parents and classroom time). Research shows that kids spend over 10 hours a day consuming media. Which means this media shapes a kid’s world in very impactful

Social Media Engagement

Kids today are interacting more with social media than with humans. And we still don’t know all the short, medium, or long-term effects of this. However, there are benefits to social media as well – so, a push/pull exists between social media being a tool for connecting and also being tool for companies to use to sell products.

Intimacy Crisis and Gen Z

Gen Z – defined as 24 years old and younger – is more conscious of the social construction of gender, and so they are more gender fluid with 56% identifying as gender or sexually fluid. They are also more socially aware, more activist, and more likely to understand intersectionality and its effects throughout society. As soon as you put people into categories, people tend to rank them in a hierarchy. This is especially true for dichotomous categories (i.e. Male v female, Black v White).

Noted: The Atlantic Article: The Conversation

Real World Activism v Arm Share Activism

Arm Share activism, or online social media activism, has given young people a powerful tool in consumer activism (like boycotts and buycotts). Young people are much more likely to use their online power to hold corporations accountable in new ways.

Performative Self

We have always cultured girls to hate their bodies, however, social media exacerbates these issues with everything being an idealized self. From before and after photos to facetuning, these online images have real world effects. The rate of surgeries has dramatically increased.

Girls are feeling so much pressure about their bodies that they will risk their bodies and lives and pleasure to go under the knife, some before 18, to change their physical appearances to be more appealing to men. And this is dangerous “because we are essentially teaching girls that they should be more concerned about how other people view them than by how they view
themselves”. As a culture we have normalized women risking their lives in order to appear more sexually attractive to others is the definition of lacking power in a culture.

There’s a huge difference between being sexy and being sexual. Being sexy is for other people, being sexual is for yourself.


The Beauty Yardstick is the most damaging thing in our culture. Imagine how would it be to live in a more meritorious culture where women are judged on who they are and not what they look like! Where effort, work, kindness, empathy, and service matter, rather than beauty, for all humans.

The game is rigged against women to never be happy in their own skin.

Who Sets the Values?

We have allowed marketers an inordinate amount of power in shaping our values: wealth, competitiveness/winning, control, and aggression – men and women alike. And these are reflected in our educational, political, and media institutions. These values are fundamentally incompatible with human happiness, as research shows that close connection and service to
others is what increases our happiness. And yet we are left to wonder why we are becoming less happy with each generation.

About the Expert

Caroline Heldman

Caroline Heldman

Dr. Caroline is the Executive Director of the Representation Project and a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She is also a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institue for Gender in Media. Her research specializes in media, the presidency, and systems of power (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability)

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