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