For most of human history, women en masse have considered it a good thing to be seen as subjects rather than objects. That’s what Eve’s fig leaves were all about. They were intended to help Adam see her in all her feminine beauty. They were intended to protect her from being used. 

But today, fewer women are interested in that kind of protection. Instead of worrying about being seen as objects, a good many of us, as Gregory Popcak noted in this week’s In Focus, “Sexualization of girls (Pages 9-12), are simply competing to become the sexiest object around. 

From the tiara-wearing toddlers talked about in the story to minivan-driving moms and botox-injecting grandmothers, “sexy” has become the goal for most women in America today. The reason for that, at least in part, is that women have convinced ourselves that sexy and beautiful are the same thing. And, in wanting to be beautiful, we strive to be sexy. But sexy and beautiful aren’t the same thing. Not by a long shot. 

A beautiful woman is a woman who is lovely in body and soul. Her loveliness starts on the inside and is reflected on the outside. It’s the fruit of a loving heart, an intelligent mind and a joyful spirit. As such, it manifests itself through more than just her size and shape. Rather, her beauty reveals itself through how she walks and talks and smiles and laughs, in how she listens to others, in how she cares for others. Her beauty is about much more than the sum of her parts. 

That’s why a beautiful woman is also a modest woman — not a frumpy woman, but a modest woman — one who chooses to veil some of her parts, just as Eve did, so that the beauty of other parts isn’t outshone. 

Sexy, on the other hand, unveils all that beauty veils. 

Linguistically speaking, the word is a synonym for smutty, risqué, dirty, bodacious and toothsome. It offers the narrowest possible definition of a woman’s attractiveness, limiting attractiveness not only to physical beauty, but to a specific type of physical beauty at that — basically whatever “type” is being peddled by Madison Avenue and Hollywood on any given day. It then advertises that attractiveness to all comers, putting it on display like an object in a store window. 

Women from ages 5 to 95 should want to be beautiful. After all, we are, the Church teaches, the beautiful sex; the sex that images in a particular way the beauty of God. Wanting to be beautiful is simply wanting to be who God made us to be. 

Wanting to be sexy, however, is wanting to be less than who God made us to be. It’s wanting to be valued for less than the fullness of who we are. 

Until women learn that, little girls can’t. Until mothers and grandmothers, aunts and family friends learn to both see and live the difference between sexy and beautiful, the sexualization of our young will continue. 

The burden is on us. If we want to protect them, we have to first protect ourselves. We have to show them the way. Because if we don’t? No one will. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.