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Is the 'Porn Chic' Tendency Affecting Girls' and Boys' Body Confidence?

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I was delighted to represent Denmark at this year's United Nations summit on the Commission for the Status of Women. For the first time the issue of body image and the representation of women in the media was discussed at a global level with a panel hosted by UK Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone.

It was a fantastic event and hopefully the sign of more international collaboration to come.

When I was appointed Minister for Gender Equality only six months ago, it was a great honour. In my opinion gender equality is the foundation of our society and a prerequisite for democracy, welfare and growth.

In Denmark we have a long standing tradition for ensuring women and men equal rights and equal status. We have been working continuously on breaking down old fashioned gender roles in order to eliminate barriers for women and men and allow them to act freely - unrestricted from gender stereotypical expectations.

As a result Denmark has been ranked by the World Bank's Global Gender Gap Index as one of the most equal societies in the world.

The mass media
Yet, I am still concerned about the persistent stereotypical gender roles which seem to penetrate many spheres of our daily lives.

We are increasingly faced with these images through the mass media via commercials, clothes, music, TV and the internet - often with clear sexual references - the so called 'porn chic' tendency where soft core pornographic images are mainstreamed into other media platforms.

I am concerned about how these images affect our perception of ourselves in every aspect of our lives as women and men, mothers and fathers, employers and managers. And I am concerned how these images affect young girls' and boys' body confidence.

Many young people upload photos of themselves on popular websites, and I am thrilled that so many take full advantage of different social media. However, at the same time it is apparent that too many girls and boys are copying symbols and codes from the pornographic industry.

Denmark was one of the first countries in the world to legalise the pornographic industry. I don't have anything against pornography as such, but what I'm worried about is the fact that so many girls and boys watch it from a very young age, when they aren't able to differentiate between fiction and reality.

A Nordic study documents that 97% of boys between 12 and 14 years old have watched pornography and 15% started watching it when they where nine years old or younger.

One problem with this is that the pornography industry promotes certain gender stereotypes and this can reinforce traditional norms and perceptions of women and men.

Another problem is whether hardcore pornographic images - not least in the cases of violent or demeaning actions - give young people a very warped understanding of sexuality and love between two equal partners.

How do these images affect the minds of very young girls and boys?
The Nordic study also indicates that girls and boys are influenced differently by the industry as well as by the general mainstreaming of pornographic related symbols and codes into the mass media.

Some girls identify themselves with the models and want to change their body to match the shape of the models by losing weight and using plastic surgery. Boys seem to have a more relaxed attitude towards male models while pointing out that they hope to 'grow into a six-pack'.

These differences imply that girls and boys are influenced by the pornographic industry and the mainstreaming of pornographic codes and symbols, and that these are internalised and used as the basis of the way many young people stage themselves on the internet and in relation to others.

A Danish study has shown that many girls are extremely dissatisfied with their body image and they have serious concerns about their eating habits - finding that 26% of girls are on a diet whereas only 5% of boys are. Also, girls exercise to lose weight and to change their body shape whilst boys play sport as part of a social activity and to become more muscular. A majority of girls feel sad and disillusioned and have difficulties in overcoming these issues in their lives on a daily basis.

So what can be done?
Pornography is everywhere on the internet, and soft core pornographic codes and symbols are everywhere in the mass media and public spaces as part of commercials and sexualised stereotypical body images.

We can't avoid these images, but we can help girls and boys to decode these images and regain their body confidence based on a diverse and natural perception of body image.

The UK Government's body confidence campaign is one important way of educating future generations.

In Denmark we have had similar campaigns. We have produced teaching materials, films and websites in order to raise awareness on this issue among girls and boys, and we have encouraged teachers and parents to discuss these issues with their students, daughters and sons.

I am very happy that I was asked by Lynne Featherstone, UK Minister for Equalities, to participate in the recent United Nations event since we all need to tackle this global problem together. We need to help young girls and boys to grow filters in order for them to distinguish between the stereotypical portrayals of women and men in the media and real life.

This post forms part of the UK government's blog series on body confidence which will run throughout 2012.

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