For those of you who haven’t yet heard about The Sexy Lie, and who haven’t seen this TEDxYouth San Diego talk on the topic of sexual objectification given by Caroline Heldman, the chair of the Politics department at Occidental College, I wanted to share this with you. All of you, male or female, but particularly the women, really ought to listen to this because it really changes the way you look at the world around you, and yourself, leaving you both empowered and depressed about the world at the same time.
Watch the video before reading on
I’m sure you’re thinking ‘Wow’, much like I was when I first watched the video. It really makes you face up to all those elements of the world we live, all those things like the Nuts magazine covers and the dolls houses right up to those blokes that leer at you on a night out and the way you make a point of dressing up. All those tiny things that seem insignificant because they have become part of our everyday lives and we have become so desensitised to the extreme sexuality we are faced with each day.
As a friend of mine said, it’s like being raised in a red room, pulled out of that red room, and asked to describe the colour red.
This is something I had not really thought of previously in these terms, of course I am aware of how extreme and sometimes shocking advertising can be to really jump out at us, but until I heard this speech, I don’t think I had really thought about the reason for this – that we have become immune to high sexualised images. The speaker gives a great example of this in the advert for pre-owned cars with the text ““You know you’re not her first, but do you really care?” The gasp from the audience said it all, I too was shocked to hear this lewd and disgusting way of advertising something so completely unrelated. And the fact that the number of adverts we are exposed to each day has increased so much is actually quite scary when you think of it in terms of the children who are equally exposed to such images. In such a hyper-sexualised society is it any wonder that children are growing up so fast and that complaints websites are needing to be set up?
Why are we experiencing this now? It can really be boiled down to technology. New technology has increased the sheer number of images that you are exposed to everyday. In the 70’s, we saw about 500 ads a day. Now, we see about 5,000 ads a day.
Caroline’s questions for defining sexual objectification are great and wheedling out those that might sometimes get away with it, such as the commodity or canvas ideas. But it is her explanation of the sex object vs sex subject that really interested me. I had never thought of the power struggle under those terms – I had always believed that the relationship between men and women is a power struggle but I liked to think that women often held the power by being desirable. But after listening to this talk I am left conflicted. I still think that choosing to be sexually objectified does give you a certain power – look at Kim Kardashian, she chose that lifestyle and has made it work for her and look at her success (whether we all want that kind of success is a different matter). However, Caroline is right that if you are sexually objectified by another, you lose your power because you are there to be acted upon by those who deemed you a sex object in the first place.
Even if you become the perfect object, the perfect sex object, you are perfectly subordinate because that position will always be acted on; so there’s not power in being a sex object when you think about it logically. Beyond that, this idea that sex sells, I like to challenge that directly because the fact is if sex sold, most women are heterosexual and we are sexual beings, so why wouldn’t we see half naked men everywhere in advertising.
I would like to propose that something else is being sold here. To men, they’re being sold this idea constantly that they are sexual subjects. They are in the driver’s seat. It makes them feel powerful to see images of objectified women everywhere.
As Caroline goes on to say, it is power that is being sold, and mainly to men. How sad that we live in a society where we have to constantly make men feel better about themselves by making ourselves into sex objects that have been airbrushed beyond recognition and, as she goes on to say, how sad that we are raising the next generations to do the same.
We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environments. We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved. What if women started to view their bodies as tools to master their environment as tools to get you from one place to the next as these amazing vehicles for moving through the world in a new way?
She finishes with a plea for the audience to imagine the following, and it’s astonishing to think how simple this world she imagines should be, but in reality how absurd it sounds. I’m glad to say I’m not the sort of girl who takes hours over hair and make-up, but I still cannot imagine a world where I didn’t feel like I needed to or wanted to to feel completely comfortable. How sad is that? As one of the more confident girls I know, I should be happy to walk around make-up free and I should not feel like the way I look will have an influence on the men around me. I like to think that I wear make-up because I like to and I dress up for nights out because I genuinely enjoy getting dolled up – and I think because I have had a boyfriend for so long this is less for the men around me than others – but is it just the result of a lifetime of conditioning from women’s magazines telling me I must be wearing an outfit that shows off my figure or lipstick that makes guys want to kiss me?
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this idea of imagining a different world. I’d like you to imagine a world where girls and women don’t spend an hour every morning putting on their make-up and doing their hair.
I’d like you to imagine a world where women are valued for what they say and what they do rather than the way they look.
I would like you to imagine a world where instead of spending time on dress and appearance, we actually directed our energies to dealing with serious problems like human trafficking, sexualized violence, homophobia, poverty, hunger.
I have to add that while I do feel that I am valued for what I say and my input at work, I genuinely think that my looks played a part in the reason I was hired by the initially male-heavy staff. I have no huge problem with this because I have more than proved my worth in the job and have used this to my advantage in this situation, but what if appearance was the reason someone didn’t get the job in favour of someone who was better looking but less talented? This is when sexual objectification becomes a problem, especially if it leads to inappropriate comments or behaviour. Caroline is right, there are far more important issues out there that warrant our attention than having the latest shoes or achieving that perfect liquid eye-liner technique. As she lists above, these are just some of the important issues that we should be tackling.
You might want to check out this article about how being a woman restricts your freedom across the globe.
I’d love to know your thoughts on the talk by Caroline and on my opinions on the subject – share them in a comment below!
“what if if my looks had meant I didn’t get the job in favour of someone who was better looking but less talented? This is when sexual objectification becomes a problem”
…and what about the girl less attractive than you but more talented who got passed over for you this time? Its a problem for her now. Just because a problem doesn”t personally affect you, doesn’t mean its not a problem. That is a really selfish attitude.
I’m sorry you feel that way Carrie, I obviously didn’t mean it is only being a problem if it applies to me but I was putting myself in the shoes of the person on the other side of my experience – which I feel is very important in order to understand both sides of the coin. If we never imagined ourselves in the position of others less fortunate, we would never give to charities that support poverty-stricken countries across the world because we would not feel any sympathy for their cause without experience of it. What I was saying is that it is easy to be on either side of the situation, the more or less attractive one, and that this shouldn’t be something that even comes into it. I was lucky in my situation because it worked in my favour. But for those who it doesn’t work for, or for that time when it doesn’t work in my favour, it means an unfair dismissal of pure talent. Perhaps you should re-read my piece with that in mind before accusing me of being selfish. I would love to know your thoughts on the wider issues, so please feel free to share.
Thanks for the interesting post. It is a complex subject, and so that Caroline can give a short talk that provokes discussion she hasn’t considered all aspects of the situation. In particular, I wonder if there’s more than just the influence of society that makes women pay such large amounts of attention (generally) to their looks.
Male and female brains are different, a result of evolution. It might be the case that females pay more attention to small details for example, one result of which might be the every-30-seconds self adjusting/monitoring behaviour that Caroline mentioned woman do. Females are also much more highly attuned for social interaction, and when it comes to attracting a mate they might be quite skillful at reading what men find appealing and adjust their own behaviour accordingly, i.e. woman know how to make themselves get men to do what they want by using their body as a lure.
But then… just because this behaviour might be naturally built-in to men and women, and reflected in our societies, doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be accepted as it is. I’m not saying either way, I’m just raising some points 🙂
PS Funny to see you’re from Kings Lynn – I grew up in Suffolk, Bury St Edmunds. Almost neighbours!
Hi Tim – no problem and thanks for throwing another viewpoint into the mix. You’re right that she hadn’t considered other reasoning for these behaviours and the biological argument is a good one and I agree that this is probably a huge part of why we act the way we do. However, just to counter-balance this, our evolutionary changes are a reflection of our environment, does this mean social changes as well? If so, these changes in attitudes could cause women to evolve in such a way that introduces the monitoring and adjusting movements and the awareness – in theory. I’m not informed enough on evolution or anything like that, so all just theories and just to counter your comments. It’s an interesting topic and I guess you can trace it all to the whole nature vs nurture on one branch of the argument, with the question of whether women are programmed so differently to males that they are more susceptible to this type of thing. Your points are great and have really made me look at it differently – I think perhaps it is one of this topics that the longer you discuss it, the more complicated and the larger it gets because there are just so many branches and linked issues to it. Haha what a coincidence! Thanks for your comments!
Good points. You are quite right to mention that my comments basically go to the whole widely discussed nature vs nurture issue. I wish I could spend more time talking about this with you, unfortunately it’s the usual story, so I’ll have to leave it there. I’m glad I helped give you something extra to consider. I’ve been reading your other posts. Great writing. I’m now following 🙂
I know it’s one of those discussions I could go on about all day but there’s only so much typing we can do! Thanks, I’m glad you like them, will be interested to hear some more thoughts on those as well – always interesting to have another viewpoint pointed out! Will be checking out your blog now as well 🙂