A friend forwarded me a writing request from someone seeking personal feedback on the phenomenon of sexual objectification. The reason this individual, a professor at a university in the US midwest, is seeking such stories is because he’s noticed a change in ideology over the last few decades. Once upon a time, during the second wave of the feminist movement, being identified as a sex object was viewed negatively, but he’s noticed that this has changed in recent years, with more people (from non-marginal groups) choosing to accentuate their position as object in the name of sex positivity.
I’m not totally sure why my friend chose to forward the request to me, though I suspect that my openness with talking about sexuality and lived experience may be part her reason.
I could get into the philosophy around why being seen as an object as opposed to subject is problematic. I could talk about how second-wave anti-pornography feminism has been hugely problematic and marginalizing for so many whose arousal triggers were demonized for being mysogynist (even in the absence of women, in the case of gay porn). I could talk about all that quite a lot. I don’t want to.
Here’s where I out myself as a bad feminist: for me, sexual objectification and what I feel about it is totally reliant on context. Anyone who knows me in real life knows how I dress. I have one of those classic pin-up figures: full breasts, round bottom, wide hips. I dress to emphasize my curves; a lot of my clothes are form-fitting and show a fair amount of skin. My overall style runs toward the hyperfeminine, and that’s how I’m comfortable. Does it draw attention? Sometimes. Does it lead people to treat me like a collection of exaggerated female body parts, rather than a competent, intelligent person whose skill and brain are more highly valued than her appearance? I have no idea. I’d like to believe that when I present myself in the way that I’m most comfortable, my overall confidence shines through and that’s what people see, but maybe I’m wrong.
I can tell you that there is someone in my life who regularly reduces me to my physical attributes. There is no question that this person has specific lusts for my collection of parts. I refuse to see that in a negative light. Perhaps it would be different if this person in my life were involved with me exclusively because I have big breasts and I put out. Perhaps. That’s not the dynamic here, though, as this person sees me as an intelligent person in my own right, who also happens to have big boobs and who puts out.
My comfort level with others’ perceptions of my sexual physicality isn’t shared by all, nor does it have to be. I have a great deal of respect for women who choose to dress modestly (for example, in more conservative religious traditions) to discourage unwanted or inappropriate sexual attention. It’s perfectly reasonable to coexist in a community in which many levels of physical comfort are accommodated, without one being more worthy of respect than another. The backlash that extremely conservative Muslim women have experienced for choosing to veil their faces is the most extreme current example of our community standards of women contained in public space. Now, anyone who doesn’t choose a certain level of exposure is suspect. Because the status quo is to hide nothing, those who choose modesty must be hiding more than just a face, a collarbone, a figure. The free and public access to women’s bodies as viewable commodities has fed into the collective mistrust of difference in general, and Islam more specifically. The war on terror in a whole new light?
Wow. That was a digression I wasn’t expecting.
There’s one aspect of objectification I haven’t addressed yet, and it’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot more as my daughter gets closer to puberty. It’s one thing for an adult to be perceived as a sexualized object. It is another thing altogether to put that on a child.
When I was 13, I literally woke up with my breasts having grown from a B to a D cup. I was horrified. I felt like a mutant. I was shorter than I am now (and that’s saying something), with these full hips and these GIANT BREASTS OF DOOM. I did everything I could to hide them, short of binding them to my body. I wore clothes that were far too large for my frame, so I’d be perceived as “fat” instead of “slutty” (because we all know that slutty is as slutty looks, not as slutty does, right?) (and we also know that “fat” /= sexy. oh, problematic adolescence!).
I spent the next two years hiding my curves under layers of clothes, and only the girls in gym class were the wiser. I was fortunate enough to be in a fairly academic program, and I was one nerd of many. I wasn’t ever an insider, but I was accepted as an oddly-dressed chubby smart girl. Then I got cast in the school play, and through the magic of costuming, my secret was out. I tried on this dress: it was light pink, ankle-length, and skin-tight from the waist up. The costume assistant saw my face, and knew. “I’m so sorry about this,” she said, as I left the bathroom to go back to the stage for director input on the dress.
I have never felt as dirty as I did that afternoon. Navigating the reactions of my peers was challenging enough (and if I’m totally honest with myself, it was a bit titillating to suddenly have the attention of every teenaged boy in the room), but to have a 30-year-old man respond in exactly the same way as the 15-year-old boys? To have him look at me as a consumable thing as opposed to student… any naivete I may have still had at that point disappeared in that moment. That look, and the comments that followed, forced me to see my body in very adult ways before I was ready to see myself in that light. I insisted that we find a different dress, but for the duration of rehearsals, the comments continued, and requests for the first dress’ return were made almost daily for weeks. No one was interested in my ability to memorize my lines, to deliver them clearly and audibly. No one cared to discuss acting technique. They were all (director included) completely focused on my breasts.
As I said above, I currently have someone in my life who is overwhelmingly fixated on my breasts and other assorted parts, and I am more than totally cool with his attentions. I’m also 20 years older now than when that attention was first paid me as a child. The sexual dynamics that arise between healthy, sane, and consenting adults is often more than what teenagers experimenting with the newness of their adolescent sexuality can grasp in appropriate and safe ways. In no way am I trying to desexualize young people with that statement: it is important for teenagers to stumble through their early sexual development to figure out what fits, what works, what feels good, and what doesn’t. But just as I think it would be totally inappropriate for most adolescents to dive headfirst into sensory play (for example), I think it’s also problematic to assume that most teenagers can respectfully navigate a situation in which one of the partners is objectified in a sexual manner.
As for adults in positions of authority objectifying teenaged bodies? It’s challenging enough without the authority dynamic. I don’t want to play the “But what about the children?” card here, but yeah. There are some young people who are mature enough to make choices, sure. And there are some adolescents who freely choose very adult relationships with adult people, to no ill effect. Not with someone charged with a caregiving responsibility, though. Not with someone who holds actual power over that person (grades are important stuff, you know). Nope. Nope. Nope. I absolutely cannot condone that under any circumstances. Even so, I’m not unsympathetic. Teachers are humans like everyone else, and boobs do seem to have a fairly universal stupidifying effect on those who like them. I get where the reaction came from. Evolution is hard to fight, even if the dinosaur fossils are only 5000 years old.
It was a teachable moment for me, though I’m not entirely sure the lesson was the right one. As humiliated as I felt in that moment on the stage and in the weeks following, I also figured out that my sexualized body brought with it, for better or worse, a certain level of power. The threat of being perceived as a slut was suddenly not so scary and started to become intriguing. I started to slouch less, and carry my body more confidently. I dressed more provocatively (and was actually almost sent home once for doing so). Was that moment what led me to where I am today? Would I dress as provocatively in my 30s had I not experienced that objectification in my teens? I can’t answer that question, but it is an interesting one to ask.