Your body is not a “thing”

The other day, this picture came up on my tumblr dash:

ImageI figured that this might be a good time to write a post about objectification, since it seems to be a word that people feel comfortable using even though they don’t always understand the concept.

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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Objectification is not a good thing. Ever. Since objectification often occurs in a sexual context, it’s not unusual for people to think that objectification just means finding someone desirable, wanting to have sex with them, or admiring their sexual attractiveness and physical beauty. This is not true. Objectification is much more complicated and much more serious than that.

Here’s a definition from an academic article:

“Sexual objectification occurs whenever a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her (Bartky, 1990). In other words, when objectified, women are treated as bodies – and in particular, as bodies that exist for the use and pleasure of others” (Fredrickson and Roberts 175).

When objectification of women’s bodies is all around you, it makes sense that women would internalize these cultural messages. This means that they begin to see themselves as objects and to see their worth and identity as tied to the appearance of their bodies in a way that men don’t.

This internalization, which can be called self-objectification, can cause shame when women compare their bodies to the “perfect” bodies they see all around them on TV, in films, in advertising, and online.

It can also cause anxiety because women don’t really know when their bodies are going to be looked at or how they’re going to be evaluated, so we have to be constantly vigilant about how we appear. Fredrickson and Roberts wrote their article in 1997, so I have to wonder how social media like Instagram and Facebook impact that anxiety, since now women know that at any given moment, someone could be looking at or judging pictures of them.

Study: the objectification of women is a real, measurable phenomenon.

When I was learning about objectification in one of my women’s studies courses in undergrad, it was the idea of “peak motivational states” that I found the most interesting. See, there’s this state of mind called “flow,” which is “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi in F&R 183). So it’s that state of joy that you achieve when you finish a really good run, or when you complete a really challenging crossword puzzle (ok, maybe that’s just me), or stay up all night working on a story or poem or essay that you’re really passionate about.

Objectification can interrupt that flow. So when you’re out for that run and a guy yells “nice ass” from his car, and you spend the rest of the run wondering if your shorts are too tight, he’s ruined your flow.

Even worse, self-objectification can interrupt your flow too, through self-consciousness and body monitoring. I remember this SO clearly; soon after learning about self-objectification and flow, I was sitting in another class, furiously taking notes and trying to keep up with the lecture. At some point, I looked down and noticed how fat my thighs looked spread out on the chair, and I got really self-conscious. I moved so I was sitting on the edge of the chair, so my thighs were off the chair… and then realized that I’d totally lost my train of thought in following the lecture.

Stupid self-objectification.

Sadly, objectification and self-objectification can have very real consequences, starting at a young age. For instance, since any kind of movement “draws attention to the body” and therefore puts the mover at risk for objectification, girls may avoid participating in sports, running around on the playground, or raising their hands in class to volunteer to put a math problem on the board. When they do participate in these activities, they may enjoy them less because they’re constantly reminded that their bodies may be looked at.

On another side of the issue, the sexual objectification of women “is a key component of sexual violence” (F&R 183). Think about it – if you’re a man living in a world where women are constantly objectified, there’s a chance you may internalize the idea that women are objects. You might get used to the idea that women’s bodies exist to be looked at, that you can judge their worth by their bodies, and that their personality, intelligence, and desires are less important than what they look like.

This internalization doesn’t always result in physical violence; a man may feel entitled to comment on a woman’s body, whether she’s on TV or standing in front of him at the bus stop, and if he’s more of a jerk, might see nothing wrong with cat-calling or harassing her. However, taken to a more extreme conclusion, objectification – seeing women as less human than men – makes it just a little easier to beat them, to rape them, or to justify the many ways in which they are discriminated against or devalued.

How to spot objectification in five easy steps.

So where do we see objectification? Well, it often occurs (as do many sexist things) in media, and advertising tends to be the biggest offender. Here’s a quick overview of a few types of sexual objectification to help you get a better idea of what I’m talking about:

No face. Next time you open a magazine or pass a billboard, pay attention to whether or not you can see the female model’s face. Seeing a person’s face, especially his or her eyes, reminds you of that person’s humanity and personality. By using pictures where a woman’s face is out of the shot, advertisers are basically saying that a woman’s body is the most important thing about her, and that her humanity and personality are unimportant and nonexistent.

PETA has a long tradition of objectifying women's bodies in the name of animal rights.

PETA has a long tradition of objectifying women’s bodies in the name of animal rights.

Sometimes obscuring a woman's face can go even further, where just a part of her body is used as a stand-in for the woman herself. Often, it's breasts. In this case, it's legs (and whatever is between them).

Sometimes obscuring a woman’s face can go even further, where just a part of her body is used as a stand-in for the woman herself. Often, it’s breasts. In this case, it’s legs (and whatever is between them).

 

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Sometimes using just parts of women’s bodies begins to look a bit like dismembering, implying violence. For the record, I think that’s Victoria Beckham.

Repetition. You’ll often see ads that feature several similar-looking women, often in a very sexualized context. Ads like this send the message that women are interchangeable; by featuring women who look similar to each other, they imply that women are similar and that they have little individuality (and that that individuality is not important or desired).

repetition

Body as object. This is the most literal take on objectification. By turning a woman’s body into the object being advertised, advertisers imply that that it’s not just the product that is being sold, but the woman’s body as well. Both are available for consumption.

Woman as beer bottle.

Woman as beer bottle.

So... not only is she an object, but you can control her. Literally. With controls.

So… not only is she an object, but you can control her. Literally. With controls.

Woman as passive object of sex and/or violence. These ads reinforce the idea that women are there for men’s sexual pleasure. In these ads, the women don’t really seem all that excited about what is about to happen. The men are looking at the women, with the obvious intent of having sex with them, while the women are staring off into space. It’s like even the guys in the ads are objectifying the women, and the women in the ads are trying to ignore it.

Dolce & Gabbana: where gang rape is sexy.

Dolce & Gabbana: where gang rape is sexy.

While there doesn't appear to be overt violence here, it's implied in the text. Also, he's looking at her, objectifying her, while she's staring off into space.

While there doesn’t appear to be overt violence here, it’s implied in the text. Also, he’s looking at her, objectifying her, while she’s staring off into space.

One major commonality among all of these is that they present objectification as something that is sexy and desirable; since women are taught that being sexy and desirable are really important, they are more willing to internalize these messages.

So when a man says he wants to be objectified, or a woman jokes about it (“hey baby – want to objectify me?”), they don’t actually MEAN objectify. Thinking that someone is hot or really wanting to have sex with them isn’t objectification. Like sexism or racism, objectification is systematic and cumulative. And just like reverse sexism or reverse racism don’t exist, neither does reverse objectification.

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13 responses to “Your body is not a “thing”

  1. “Thinking that someone is hot or really wanting to have sex with them isn’t objectification. Like sexism or racism, objectification is systematic and cumulative.”

    I think this is the key point a ton of well-intentioned, otherwise feminist people miss (as opposed to the assholes who just want to defend their right to treat women like objects).

    The only thing I’m not sure I agree with is the idea that men can’t be objectified (assuming that’s what you meant by your last paragraph). In a sexual context, I mostly agree with you, but objectification isn’t just sexual. Cultural tropes that treat men’s bodies as objects revolve more around violence than sex, but I think it’s still objectification.

    Anyways, I’m not trying to argue that ‘reverse-sexism’ is a meaningful concept, just that objectification perhaps doesn’t map to sexism perfectly.

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    • Actually, that’s a terrific point, thank you.

      I should have been more clear that that point was in response to people who try to derail conversations about sexual objectification by pointing to ads with sexy shirtless men. I’m definitely going to look up the male objectification / violence thing, as that’s a really interesting idea that I don’t think I’ve encountered before.

      Thanks again!

      Like

    • I wouldn’t agree that men are objectified where violence or anything else is concerned. Terms like ‘objectification’ are made and/or used with a very specific context in mind when applied to gender and it’s counter productive to simply grab and apply them to different groups of people or circumstances.

      Objectification is something that is enacted upon women primarily by a cis-het male orientated media and culture. There is a very specific kind of power dynamics at play here. When men are portrayed in violent media they are more often portrayed as having an active role in events rather than as just passive objects who are having things done to them. They enact violence as well as having it acted upon them by others. They aren’t things to be owned or posessed. They’re people doing and achieving things. Media involving male characters in violent situtations focus on what the characters do, not on how they look or on what the audience would like to do to them, sexually or otherwise. Most violent films, tv series, books, comics and video games are made mostly by men with a male audience in mind. Media that sexualises women is made mostly by men with hetero men in mind, not women of any sexuality. Male characters are also more numerous and varied in terms of personality and physical attributes compared to female characters across all kinds of media. So the comparison simply doesn’t work.

      I think that when people say men are objectified what they mean is that men are idealised. The strong, muscled male protagonist, his allies and his enemies represent idealised views of masculinity. However, these idealised representations also do a lot of harm to men and often result in limiting the potential ways men are protrayed in the media. When I say men aren’t objectified don’t assume that I’m saying media representations don’t hurt men in a major way because they really, really do. I just think it’s a mistake to divorce feminist terms from the power dynamics these terms are used to illustrate and criticise.

      Jim Sterling did a video on this topic relating to objectification in video games but I think his argument works for all kinds of media: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/jimquisition/7290-Objectification-And-Men

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      • Thank you for taking the time to reply! I clicked on your name to see if I could follow you (since you obviously have interesting things to say!) but it wouldn’t let me. Let me know if you have a blog I could check out, and thank you again!

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      • I don’t know- I’m not just talking about action movies (or similar forms of media) but a general narrative that treats men’s bodies as the normative site for violence to play out on. You see it with the way men are talked about during pro sports commentary all the time (i.e. look at how much punishment that body took/can take; that’s an essential feature of it’s maleness!).

        Like I said, I’m still working through my thoughts on this; I also want to be really careful to demonstrate that I’m not making a MRA-ish false equivalency between sexism against women and ‘sexism’ against men. But there’s… something… about the narratives and images that deal with men’s bodies, violence, pain, and masculinity that to me is described well by objectification. I’m still working on finding a way to articulate it, so my apologies for the clumsiness along the way.

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    • I have a right to objectify a womans body, if that makes me an asshole, that is your opinion, but I do have the right to do it. We can all look at someone and admire their physicality.

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      • I’m not sure if it makes you an asshole as much as it makes you complicit in rape culture. If you go back and read some of the points I’ve made, there’s a HUGE difference between admiration and objectification.

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  2. This is a great article. It’s got me thinking how much of this applies to fat people, which of course includes men. We’ve got the headless fatty phenomenon, the fear of attracting any attention to our bodies, the near constant distraction of awareness that we don’t fit, figuratively or literally, and the societal message that our bodies are the only meaningful thing about us.

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  3. I would feel flattered to be sexually objectified.

    I feel that way, because women don’t sexually objectify men, and it would feel nice to once in a while.

    The grass is always greener, stop complaining.

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  4. Pingback: Yes, ‘Magic Mike XXL’ is a feminist movie, but the reason may surprise you | I was a high-school feminist·

  5. Saying that men can’t be objectified is literally the same as saying that men can’t be sexualized. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of male porn? Besides, there’s a difference between viewing a woman as sexually appealing and knowing a woman as a person. The former, by the way, is called porn. And just because porn or sexual imagery exists, doesn’t mean it makes the person starring in the image anything less than a person.

    Let’s say, for example, that I have a friend who works in the porn industry. Even though she’s in such a line of work, I would still value her as a person because I know her personally. I’ve seen her inner shell in addition to her outer shell, but people looking at images of her wouldn’t possibly be able to know what she’s like as a person.

    I look at porn. I love porn. But I don’t see women as mere sexual objects because of it. The people who /do/, however, should really take the blame. Not the objectifying. Like, 99% of heterosexual men look at or are attracted to female sexual imagery. Yet most of those men still respect women, and don’t see their female friends as objects of lust.

    This image makes a good point.

    Like

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