Opinion | What we need to take away from the disturbing TikTok pigtails trend

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The continued popularity of portrayals like that of Sailor Moon in a blue middle school sailor uniform, and Britney Spears dressed as a sexy schoolgirl in the music video of her hit song “…Baby One More Time” — both of them in pigtails — remind us that schoolgirl fetish has never faded away. And now a recent social experiment on TikTok suggests that female workers in the service industry earn more tips from their male patrons if they are sporting pigtails. As many of these women pointed out, sexualization and infantilization of young women and girls have long been manifested by wearing pigtails.

“Unfortunately, women are going to be fetishized in different ways by what they look like,” said one 25-year-old server who shared her results of the experiment on TikTok. “If changing my hair up is going to affect that in a positive way, then it’s something I’m going to give a shot.”

The schoolgirl fetish is deeply rooted in sexism, reflecting some men’s views that young, naive and submissive women are hypersexual.

To some, this may seem like a silly — even if unsettling — trend, but it perpetuates harm against young women and should end.

The schoolgirl fetish is deeply rooted in sexism, reflecting some men’s views that young, naive and submissive women are hypersexual. It is a product of the patriarchy in our society and a type of sexist view that encompasses the discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping of women as being weak and childish, undermining their abilities to shoulder important responsibilities in society as adults.

And for women of color, the compounding force of racism and hypersexualization has led to further marginalization. For example, East and Southeast Asian women are often fetishized and viewed as being petite, docile, submissive and tolerant. It’s an unhealthy exoticization that makes them susceptible to potential gender-based violence. The killing of six women of Asian-descent in the tragic 2021 Atlanta-area spa shootings is one such example.

The pressure of social media conveys a clear and straightforward message to women: Make yourselves look younger, sexier and thinner in order to be successful, to be loved, and adhere to the expected norms in our society. These norms include seeing men as having the upper hand.

In the TikTok experiment, we have seen that women in service industries who sport pigtails are hypersexualized, by male customers and by themselves, in exchange for more tips. (By contrast, schoolboys are not typically portrayed in a hypersexualized way by heterosexual women.)

It only adds to some women’s false consciousness that people — namely men —  always judge a book by its cover. That male gaze can have a detrimental effect on women’s well-being. It can show itself in a myriad of ways, including increasing self-objectification, experiencing body shame and social physique anxiety. Hypersexualized young women and girls often have other health problemstoo, such as depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders and an inability to develop a healthy and wholesome sexual self-image.

We should be actively fighting against that — not adding to it.

Social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram have gathered massive momentum to influence our daily lives, particularly young people. The hypersexualization of young women on social media gives an impetus to the sexism ingrained in our society. It puts women, especially women of color, in a dangerous position, where men, especially male predators, seize the opportunity to lurk around online and target women in different pernicious ways. Social media creates a vicious circle for women and girls to legitimize, internalize and self-hypersexualize themselves.

It’s not lost on me that the female tipped workers in the TikTok experiment were caught on the horns of a dilemma. It was either they wear pigtails to get more tips to make a living, or they stop wearing them to show their denouncement of the sexualization of young women and girls. However, no woman should be put in this dilemma.

And what happens if wearing pigtails for more tips today isn’t enough to work for tomorrow? For example, if more young women start to wear the hairstyle, the appeal of it could wear off for male customers. Does that mean these women need to do even more to please their male audience for the tips? It is not unrealistic to see how things could escalate.

One of the positive things about this social experiment is that it brings more awareness and acknowledgment to the fact that many women are often faced with an unsettling choice: safety or dehumanization to earn a livable wage. When the pigtails trend ceases to be a topic of discussion, let’s ensure that this disturbing fact doesn’t fade into obscurity.





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