There’s an undeniable shift happening right now. Women are coming together, sharing their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment, and having real conversations about creating change. One word that’s been coming up quite a bit: “objectification.” It’s a pretty common word used to when referring to one of the many aspects of societal misogyny. But what exactly does it mean to objectify a woman? And what’s the difference between objectifying and genuinely loving or admiring a woman’s body?
Every day, women around the world face different forms of oppression and harassment for simply being women — from being catcalled by men on the street to possibly being physically abused, sexually assaulted, or even raped. You may not think catcalling and heinous acts of sexual violence are related, but they actually have more in common than meets the eye. Both behaviors are connected by sexual objectification.
Let’s break it down: A glance, as intangible as it is, can be a powerful intimidation tool and more than adequate to make a woman feel unsafe.
A man staring at a woman’s body maybe seems innocent enough, but when we consider the (possible, unknowable) intention behind the gaze, things can get a little complicated. Is he looking at her to merely acknowledge her presence, or is he planning to hurt her? Does he see a human or an object? And the difference literally can mean life or death to the woman.
According to The Objectification Theory published by Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in Psychology of Women Quarterly back in 1997, sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are isolated from her whole and complex being and treated as objects simply to be looked at, coveted, or touched.
On the opposite, less actively misogynistic end of the spectrum, we have genuine admiration for a woman’s body. Admiration does not focus overwhelmingly on a specific body part or a body type. Instead, it demonstrates respect for the woman as a whole — personality traits, skills, sense of humor, etc. Healthy attraction means genuine pleasure in appreciating someone’s specific qualities, but in viewing them as part of a whole personality and a whole person.
The line between objectifying and loving a woman’s body is thin, so it’s important to get this right.
In the simplest terms, the moment you start seeing a woman as nothing more than a depersonalized object for your sexual gratification, you’ve reduced her to her body parts, and that’s precisely when admiration ends and objectification begins.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence revealed that one in three women will be subjected to some type of abuse — which could actually stem from being objectified.
A recent study conducted by University of Kent researchers found that sexually objectifying girls and women leads to aggression toward them. The study included 273 people in London who both did and did not have gang affiliations. Researchers examined the associations between objectification and aggression toward girls, as well as how gang affiliation played a role, if any, in this objectification and aggression toward girls.
The information provided by the study is disturbing, but unfortunately, it’s not surprising. It makes sense that if someone sees you as a sexual object instead of a real human being with the right to consent to sexual advances, they don’t respect you. When people objectify women, they are not considering that there is an actual human in that body.
So why then do men continue to objectify and view women in such a harmful way?
Besides the general social media consensus that “men are trash,” it can be hard for men to even notice when they’re objectifying women because it’s such a common presence in our culture.
As a society, we’ve become desensitized to using women as sexual objects in our ads, our media, and even with hyper-sexualized Halloween costumes. It’s deeply embedded in our cultural subconscious to the point where we don’t realize we’re internalizing these images in such a sexually selective way. This is by no means an excuse for men who refuse to see women as people, but it does shed light on a greater issue.
As outlined in the video above, sexual objectification is all around us. It is the idea that men and women can’t be friends because a man could never see a woman as anything more than her sexual parts. Sexual objectification is a school deciding to implement dress codes for girls that are designed not to distract boys because her knees and shoulders are sexualized to the point that a tank top is deemed inappropriate. Sexual objectification is being bombarded with sexy cleavage in every ad and magazine while being told breastfeeding is inappropriate in the same issue. Sexual objectification is being so preoccupied by a trans woman’s genitals that you define her solely based on her sexual parts and not her chosen identity.
Sexual objectification is women being used as sexy background accessories in music videos.
Ridding the world of objectification won’t be an easy task, but you can start with a bit of introspection. The next time you find yourself confused between whether you’re objectifying or admiring, ask yourself: “Do I see this person as a way of sexual/self gratification or do I appreciate them beyond my own personal pleasure?” We can honestly only change what happens in our own brains and how we choose to interact and think about other people.