The Infantilization of Women and a Theology of Aging (Getting Age Wrong Part 2)

Click here to see part 1: “Growing Up Way Too Fast.


If you’ve never heard of the “infantilization” of women, allow me to introduce you; it is an incredible phenomenon by which our society systemically equates femininity with things like vulnerability, submission, uncertainty, and childhood.  To be womanly today is to be, in many senses, infantile (cf Codes of Gender).

We see the effects of this social game played out in our efforts to mask age all the time; dyeing hair, liposuction, face-lifts, plastic surgery, anti-aging cream, hormonal injections, lying at a birthday party.  We want to appear younger, and our desire to do so is hardly “vain” or “shallow;” it makes all too perfect sense in a culture that vilifies old age.

But infantilization goes beyond a desire for youth.  It creates an ideal womanhood that profoundly affects our perceptions of women and how they perceive themselves.

Don’t understand or believe what I’m talking about?  Let me take you to the best place for a highly “concentrated, exaggerated, and distilled” picture of infantilization in our culture; advertisement.

Feminine beauty is getting younger all the time.  Just as we are sexualizing girlhood, we are infantilizing feminine sexuality itself.


Seen especially in contrast with men, women are postured in childish ways; bent knees, blank stares, holding themselves, putting their hands in their mouths, in what you might call “submissive” stances to their surroundings, while men are often depicted standing straight up, in control, and adult-like (for more examples of this, open a magazine).

If advertising is any indication, we are making women out of children and children out of women… but what scares me most is the degree with which this fits much of Christianity.


Here are a couple thoughts to throw into the conversation, one we’ll hopefully see more of.

Children should be protected from adultification.

Jesus spoke seriously about the consequences of messing with children.  Their health and safety should matter more to us than reaching a new demographic of customers.  The fact that girls are encouraged by our society to even think along the lines of attracting sexual attention should be named and shamed.

We must define womanhood in healthier ways.

The picture of womanhood in Scripture is complicated, but it doesn’t need to get lost in cultural trappings.  Women are praised for their strength, intelligence, and savvy, entrusted with ministry, and elevated in status.  Femininity is celebrated as an equal part of God’s “image.”  We should encourage girls to gradually grow into this sort of womanhood and decry our culture’s tendency to glorify female childishness.

Let us honor age.

The church has always been called to live out its mission counter-culturally, and there is certainly no more counter-cultural thing we can do than appreciate age.  Gray hairs, weaker bodies, increased wisdom, decreased capacities.  We are surrounded by such aversion for the process of aging, that it has begun to affect the way we view the aged.  Instead of side lining the elderly, we should be giving them prominence.  Instead of fearing old age and death, we should understand that all things have their time, and excitedly celebrate life at every stage.

What about you, how do you think we should respond to infantilization?

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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  • The female is shown in delicate positions with their hands, self-touching and caressing, breathless, passive, acquiesced, defenseless, powerless, sexually available, subordinate, off-balanced, helpless, removed, dreamlike, withdrawn, glamorized victims, infantile, and childlike. Even women that are portrayed in a different manner than these norms (IE, female athletes, action heroes), they are continually fighting this representation; they are trapped in the underlying gender codes. They have to find a way to show themselves to be a “real female,” because even their heterosexual femininity can come into question – constantly under the control of the gazer.
    Thank you for your necessary tie to theology!

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  • elle

    Children should be protected from adultification.
    Yes. This is why the beauty pageants for little girls are so extremely disturbing. As is makeup, high heels and other feminine accoutrements well known to be tools for attracting male sexual attention.
    We must define womanhood in healthier ways.
    I agree. I also feel that womanhood should be defined separately from a woman’s sexuality. The essence of femininity is not to be found in beauty and attracting the male gaze alone.
    Let us honor age.
    I think we as a culture do a poor job of honoring age in women precisely because we over value how women appear instead of valuing how they act. Also, separating value of a woman from her ability to procreate would go a long way in valuing women as they age.

    • Absolutely, Elle. “Defining womanhood separately from a woman’s sexuality or ability to procreate” is where we have to start.

      And, sadly, Christianity hasn’t done too swell of a job at making that distinction (something I talked about in another article, which I would love to hear your thoughts on if you’re willing to offer some – )

      If you’re right and “the essence of femininity is not to be found in… attracting the male gaze alone,” then we have a long way to go.

      • Sarah

        I’ve wondered before if Jesus had been born in a culture that was kinder to women and age more revered, and especially if Mary had been older, considering she was an icon of the early church for centuries and depicted as a child, if there would be a different perception less youthful women in the western world.

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  • Sarah Michaels

    Your post is right on! As a student in clinical psychology (PhD), I have been noticing this
    trend become more visible for several years. The implications are disturbing because if
    women are only beautiful and sexually arousing if they look like little girls, then, pretty soon
    we blur the sexual lines between women and little girls. My opinion is that this will “train” men to become future sexual predators, unless they are wise enough to know what is going on.

    I keep wondering why we don’t see more of a trend toward what is beautiful in the adult female face– because there is a lot of beauty to be found in the face of an adult woman. There are many
    adult beauties with long, elegant noses, high and sculpted cheekbones, and hourglass figures.
    None of these features are found in babies or little girls.

    From a woman’s standpoint this trend is extremely depressing and even somewhat traumatic.
    I am 39-years-old and have stayed in excellent shape. Most believe me to be in my mid-twenties.
    However, I undoubtedly look what a woman– and many have referred to me as a beautiful woman– looks like. When I was growing up, the beauty standard was to grow up to look like a beautiful adult woman with the requisiste high cheekbones and hourglass build. Ideal women were also supposed to be gracious, kind, well-groomed, and dressed in classy and elegant clothing.

    Now I see that adult women strive to look like little girls. And I see that the ‘little girl’ look is
    celebrated in the media. It’s very disturbing.

    I see all of this leading toward more sexualization of children and probably more cases
    of sexual abuse. This makes me incredibly sad 🙁

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  • I really like your article and thought I’d share a similar though via video. Not exactly the same, but along the lines – this was on radio 4 PM about the ‘kiddy’dress of grown ups: