A topic that comes up often in discussions of feminism and social activism is the idea of objectification, which generally means to see or treat a person as an object. This notion of objectification is especially relevant when it comes to violent behaviors which target women and pose a threat to their safety, such as sexual assault, physical and verbal harassment, but also when it comes to situations of gender inequality and mistreatment that arise in the workplace, institutions, and social interactions.
Martha Nussbaum identifies several features characteristic of objectification, such as treating the person as a tool for the objectifier’s purpose, denying their autonomy or right to self-determination, or otherwise treating them as lacking in agency. Sexual objectification occurs when a person is objectified sexually — for example, viewing or treating that person as a tool for sexual pleasure.
Objectification and sexual objectification of women come as a result of our social norms and culture, the dominance of patriarchy which assumes that default viewership is always male (also known as the male gaze), and the prevalence of rape culture, an environment that normalizes and trivializes sexual violence against women.
Objectification results not from physical attraction but from the violence and other forms of misogyny that accompany such attraction. It is strongly reinforced by media and pop culture, and is thus rooted in a number of social and environmental factors external to the person being objectified.
While this article often mentions women, it is important to remember that objectification especially affects not only women but also gender non-conforming individuals, men who are non-heteronormative, and other members of the LGBTQA+ community. Heterosexual and cisgender men can also be objectified, but their objectification is not prevalent in culture in the same way.
A question that arises often is the role of women themselves in this objectification, and whether it is possible for them to encourage it or contribute to it by behaving or dressing in certain ways, and alternatively, to avoid it by behaving or dressing in others. In today’s social-media-filled, selfie-rich, Instagram-sated society, the question of self-objectification often gets posed in terms of women’s participation in social media: can a woman or other female-identifying individual objectify herself when she willingly posts enticing photos of herself? Can she contribute to her own objectification? Knowing how others — male or otherwise — may view her and treat her as a result, should she refrain from posting such photos of herself?
Unraveling the myth
To put the question of self-objectification in perspective, let’s first propose another scenario. Consider a man who jogs on the street with his shirt off. It’s a stiflingly warm day and he’s feeling sweaty. A straight woman passes by, sees him and thinks to herself: “Wow, he’s hot!”. She is attracted to him, but is he objectifying himself? Probably not. Let’s imagine then that he knows that this woman is jogging behind him when he takes off the shirt — or that he does it on purpose because he knows she’s watching him. Is he objectifying himself? Not really, he’s just trying to attract her attention. It appears to us as normal male behavior. In fact, the question probably seems strange, which it is.
It becomes clear, then, that the question “Is she objectifying herself?” is only valid in the context of a society which objectifies women in the first place.
This woman who wants to post photos is already objectified; simply by being a woman, she is in an objectified state. Her decision to post pictures of herself may or may not be influenced by this objectification. It may be a statement of empowerment “I know what some people might think of me, but I’m going to do it anyway.”, it may be a need to satisfy the male gaze she is subjected to “I want to be like all those sexy women in the media”, or it may be just as normal as a man taking off his shirt to show off to a pretty woman. It may very well likely be a combination of the above three reasons. It doesn’t matter. First, because posting or not posting the photos will not change anything, and second, because she should not have to change her autonomous and consensual actions just because of the way other people will perceive her.
This woman can decide not to post the photos and she would still be objectified. And, as part of or as a likely result of that objectification, she would still be harassed, abused and treated with other forms of disrespect. If not online, then on the street; if not on the street, then by a male coworker; if not by a coworker, then by an obnoxious friend, and so on.
In fact, all women could collectively decide that they want no part in their own objectification and thus choose to never share pictures of themselves on social media. They could dress conservatively, stay at home, and protect themselves by limiting their interactions with men — and they have as much right to do so as they do to post pictures. But this will not stop them from being objectified. It will not result in a fairer, more just and equitable society, only one where everyone is miserable and repressed, and the objectification is effectively increased (e.g: see Saudi Arabia).
Thus, asking “Is she objectifying herself?” is irrelevant, does not solve any problem, and most of all, it does not make sense. It doesn’t matter what this woman does or doesn’t do because she is going to be objectified anyway. It is not in her hands, but in the hands of the objectifier who sees or treats her as an object. In fact, by implying a lack of autonomy in making her own choice as to how to best respond to the treatment she receives, the question itself objectifies the woman. The question posed should not be “Is she objectifying herself?”. It should be “Why is society objectifying her? And how can we stop that?”
Feminism recognizes the futility of placing the burden on women in preventing their own objectification and harassment. It draws on the experiences of women, femmes, and gender non-conforming individuals who have learned throughout their lives that no matter how much they try to avoid objectification, harassment, rape, or abuse, no matter how “perfectly” they try to protect themselves, they still get blamed for being assaulted or otherwise mistreated. They get blamed for their own objectification, they get blamed for their own oppression. Thus the idea that this woman is contributing to her own objectification falls in the sphere of what we call victim blaming. It shifts the burden on the person being oppressed. It is no different than asking why women can’t conceal themselves from top to bottom or just shut themselves in and stay at home.
Who does the burden fall on then, one might ask? It’s on all of us. Men who can and should change their views of women: just because they find a woman attractive does not give them allowance to treat her with disrespect; well-intentioned men who view themselves as the default experiencer of everything making the objectification of women justifiable: “We’re not objectified because we’re so hairy and ugly, who would want to look at us?”; the media which continuously portrays women with only male viewership in mind, as people who are there to please men and whom men can do things to, rather than as people who decide when they want to look sexy or engage in sexual acts; the movies, TV shows, pop songs, popular jokes, books and literature which portray women in the same way; women who objectify other women and comment on their clothing and use slut-shaming language; well-intentioned women who pass on old-age wisdoms to their daughters and sisters which teaches them to put the burden on themselves. And really, it’s not a burden, it’s a responsibility. It’s a responsibility to teach a different view of women and femininity.
There’s nothing wrong with people undressing, being naked, wanting to feel attractive, or wanting to show that off to others. There’s nothing wrong with any person being physically attracted to another. It’s the idea that such attraction should be accompanied with some kind of disrespect or contempt that should be challenged. It’s the idea that if a woman consensually engages in sexual acts or suggestions, then she is a slut or she is willfully objectifying herself, but if it’s not consensual, then she is sexy. It’s the idea that sex is something that is done to a woman when a man decides he wants to, rather than something she actively participates in. It’s the idea that women exist as viewing objects for heterosexual men’s pleasure, that we should stop perpetuating as a society, because that is the very basis of objectification. Going back to the woman who posts enticing pictures of herself, you’ll see that without this pervasive notion of women, the pictures don’t matter and the question doesn’t make sense. But in the reality of our patriarchal society, she can decide not to post the pictures, and she’ll still be objectified anyway.
You see, there is no such thing as “self-objectification”. Objectification is how one human being views and treats another. It can only come from the receiver.