Finding a way to be both human and woman.
I’m starting the year 2018 thinking about what it is to be a human in this world. I’d like to say I’ve not yet found peace with the fact I am a woman, but that’s not true. The truth is I’ve not found peace with the ability to trust that I am safe with men, and I know my distrust of even the close men in my life comes without personalised evidence. And that bothers me. It’s hindering my ability to create space for myself without fear of abandonment, to look at women through my own eyes, instead of the male gaze/expectations, to feel that another woman’s beauty is not an absence of my own, or transcend the value of beauty to the values of character and worldly participation.
I feel I cannot call myself a feminist while I am already braced against the world I live in. I feel I cannot make conscious choices while my unconscious fears rule my belief systems. Until I know I can live experiences where I truly trust that I am safe with men, automatic distrust feels like a defense mechanism, instead of a choice based on real-world experiences that are discerning instead of generalising.
I’m doing a lot of reading on gender roles, sexuality, and objectification of women’s bodies in an attempt to flesh out my narrow-minded fears with something I can use as evidence to develop them. I’m reading about sexism, shame, and relationships in an attempt to unlock my ability to find a new layer of trust within myself. Of course, my intuition questions if I feel I can’t trust yet, maybe that’s an emotion worth validating. We’ll see. For now I can be content with building an intellectual scaffolding for building more trust in others, transcending my gender a little to connect human-to human, watching how I participate in the world as a woman, and creating a healthy space for relationships with men. Mostly I’m looking at how subtle sexual objectification undermines my self esteem as a person, and how I as a woman, perpetuate sexist attitudes in my own community and my own relationship, remaining complicit to subjugation.
The media is focused on sexist discrimination in a big way at the moment, largely focusing on unwanted explicit sexual advances. Trump’s derogatory and objectifying comments among them, which his party defended by saying that one may speak about women as objects, without treating women as objects. Anger needs to be felt, but ongoing outrage, to me feels like a false sense of productivity. Outrage is an outlet for hurt, personal and collective hurt, but it is not a strategy for change. I’m turning my attention to what kind of behaviour perpetuates sexual harassment of women, and in the name of equality, I want to look at how both genders participate in maintaining a narrative that objectifies women.
Anyone that views women as inherently sexual things for the pleasure of heterosexual men, at least have a starting point for a conversation than those that don’t know they’re doing it. What I can’t understand is how those who admit they objectify women, then can’t admit we’ve not achieved gender equality, or expect to be treated as trustworthy people women can feel safe around. Sexual objectification of women is directly related to women having fewer rights than men. No?
If I take my shirt off at a public pool, to reveal my breasts, I’ll attract looks from others. I might be asked to put my shirt back on because I’m revealing something ‘indecent’. It’s indecent because it’s causing others around me to have sexual thoughts about my body, and perhaps because my breasts are seen as inherently sexual, they’re inappropriate to have out around children. Never mind that breasts once fed most of those children. If a man takes off his shirt, no one looks at his nipples and thinks sexual thoughts or feels aroused, or that they are inappropriate for children to see. How does a concept pinned to my body, my sex, afford me fewer rights (to be as clothed or unclothed and equally safe/un-judged as men in doing so) than the same body part on men?
Women are depicted in the media with a primary focus on their bodies instead of their faces, with special emphasis on body parts that have been sexualised such as their breasts, buttocks, legs, and lips. When people view such media, they unwittingly adopt an objectifying lens toward women.(Gervais & Egan 2017)
Objectification or the dehumanisation of anyone is a discriminatory action. Sexual objectification is a term defined by looking and evaluating women on the basis of their physical appearance, ignoring their needs and wishes (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). It is the act of separating the sexual parts from the rest of the woman’s body and personality, turning her into a tool and reducing her to those sexual parts (Bartky, 1990). The spectrum exists from body evaluation to unwanted sexual advances (harassment), to rape and sex trafficking. There is no doubt the exposure to harassment can be a traumatising experience, but I’d like to focus on the psychological consequences (higher levels of anxiety that women can’t seem to place the origin of, and lower levels of self-esteem) of benevolent sexism, and the enjoyment of sexualization from some women.
Martha Nussbaum (1999) suggested that there are multiple ways to dehumanise a person. These include: treating people as tools for one’s own use, denial of autonomy (i.e., treating people as lacking self-determination), treating people as passive and lacking agency, fungibility (i.e., treating people as interchangeable with others that serve the same function), violability (i.e., treating people as things that can be violated or broken into), ownership (i.e., treating people as things that can be owned as well as body and sold), and denial of subjectivity (i.e., treating people as if their thoughts and feelings do not exist). These specific examples really got to me, because I saw how complex my relationship to my own humanity could be. I sat down and journaled the ways my mistrust of men is demonstrated in my jealousy, my belief that I am an interchangeable girlfriend with just about any woman on the street I deem has better qualities, how I struggle to back myself in the face of criticism, and trade my autonomy to instead care for those around me. Questioning how I participate in keeping myself a sexual object (because it’s safe, and awards me recognition) proved enlightening.
Sexual objectification affects a woman’s psychological well-being, and the subtle experiences of sexual objectification as a mechanism plays a part in keeping women in a subordinate position, to the point where they end up feeling that the process is positive or enjoyable
The theory of ambivalent sexism (Glick and Fiske, 1996) is based on the premise one can feel positive feelings towards women that coexist with a hostile (often unconscious) dislike of women. Benevolent sexism is a set of attitudes towards women that are sexist in that they are stereotypical, but have a tone of positive effect for the viewer. Benevolent sexism feels to the perceiver that they are helping or an attempt at cultivating intimacy.
Benevolent sexism offers women social rewards for conforming to socially expected norms, and for not threatening the male status quo. Women can unwittingly subscribe to sexist ideas, by using physical attractiveness as a tool to obtain certain social benefits (as physical appearance is one of the areas women are ‘rewarded’ with good-looking mates, faithful partners, better job opportunities, more recognition, more available suitors, better outcomes in job interviews). It’s any wonder that society encourages a preoccupation with what we look like because it’s linked to seeking social rewards, which are fostered by sexist ideology. There’s no further proof needed that women encourage their own objectification when we see Facebook and Instagram selfies that focus on accentuating those body parts more than the face or experiences or whole person.
Interestingly, a study I read proves that women who enjoy sexual attention based on her appearance, are more influenced by the rewards of benevolent sexism. Women who enjoy the experiences of sexual objectification because of the rewards, will not challenge the act of discrimination that they are the centre of, because they do not perceive sexual objectification as negative.
And although sexual objectification can boost a woman’s self-esteem in the short term, it causes longer lasting effects of anxiety. Miles-McLean et al. (2015) explained the link between sexual objectification experience and trauma symptoms, which depends on the extremity of the experience. More frequent exposure to subtle sexual objectification has been linked to an increase in anxiety in women, because of increased body monitoring, and the link between subtle objectification and the perception it will become a threat to her physical safety.
So here’s the link between trust and objectification. I cannot accept that equality can exist in a world where objectifying gazes and appearance commentary is part of ‘bro talk’ between men, or ‘fat talk’ between women. I can not feel equal to other women when the conversation between women uses objectification to show that I am performing my gender properly or to create feelings of belonging. Because guy talk just reinforces heterosexist masculinity, and a limited version of masculinity that is also harming men, just as ‘girly talk’ makes me feel I am only a woman if I am putting in an effort to maintain a physical appearance that is pleasing to others. Mostly I cannot keep living talking about myself and other women to men, in crass, sexualised language.
I cannot trust any man who says he believes in fidelity who also tells me I am sexually interchangeable with other women. I don’t want to fight to make myself known in company that is literally skin deep. I cannot feel ‘enough’, when my eyes are trained to see my body through eyes of an observer. I cannot feel loved for being a whole woman by any man who largely doesn’t see other women as a whole. I cannot feel like my parts are in competition with other parts, and listen to my own sex be devalued (to make me feel better about myself) as ‘too fat’ or ‘not my type’ because that is still objectification. It’s saying she’s still a tool, but not the right one for the job. Just as I watch to see how people in power treat people with less power, to see what kind of person they are, I watch how men treat the women around them, to see how I am being measured; however subtly. I cannot ignore the link between a personal fixation on body parts and how it contributes to a cultural context that makes violence against women possible. I cannot listen to objectifying language from men I know, and still feel safe with them, because I cannot understand how I can be seen as a complex human being, while a woman passing on the street can not.
Here’s the thing. Feminism still has reasons to challenge unequal pay, domestic violence, and women’s rights. But I also think our gender-equal future needs to assess how much every woman see’s her world through the eyes of the men around her. One response to sexual objectification is self-objectification (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), where the continual evaluation of a woman’s body leads to her internalising this external evaluation and making it her own.
Simply looking at people, and being reminded humans are multi-dimensional and complex beings is enough to make me curious instead of horny. To gaze at people and be fully present, in a nonjudgmental way might be the pathway to allow spontaneous, unconditioned responses appear in our interactions between genders. Employing empathy, putting ourselves into the perspective of the other could help. When we sexually objectify people, we see their superficial appearance in determining her worth, but it comes at the cost of less attention to her thoughts or feelings. Empathy goes both ways, “boys will not be boys”. We need to understand that boys will only be boys how the gender role dictates, and expecting a broader perspective on the roles of both genders will eventually cause us to challenge normative perceptions of objectification of both men and women.
This writing comes out of a deep desire to feel safe in the world, not only to feel free to express myself without unwanted attention (I don’t want to exchange that recognition for invisibility), but to feel free to express myself and feel seen and loved in the way I need to be seen and loved; as a whole person, from men and women.