Objectification Is Not Empowering — It’s Harmful And Shaming


My dating profile has seen its fair share of revisions (and deletions) – I’m neurotic, I guess, or vain, probably – but it always reads something about an affinity to bourbon and boating, a career writing, and my boys Hemingway and Walter White. I include some conversational starters: my fear of ceiling fans and that time I fell asleep on a famous ex-baseball player. With this much material, I could never be reduced to attractiveness alone. Naively, perhaps, I believe a woman to be more than her neckline, her cleavage, her red lipstick and smoky eye, and with my articulated zeal and that line about ultimately being focused on my career, I know I am worth more than something shallow.

Enter the handsome lawyer who made me laugh in three sentences and used smart vocab. We exchanged selfies from our respective offices the morning of our date, you know, to prove we are both real people without creeping one another on Google. I rested my chin in my palm and smirked. Snap.

“Without being able to see your cleavage or your smile, I can’t be sure that’s you,” he said.

I blinked, five times, jarred, and said, “Yeah, I’m not showing either of those in an office.”

“And when you go out for a beer on a Wednesday night with a dude from the Internet?” he asked.

“I promise to smile.”

In modern culture, a woman bares cleavage and select men take that as invitation. They get all baffled that I would take offense because, hello, they are my breasts, this is my fault. “What did you expect?” he says. “With photos like that, you’ll only attract a guy because of your boobs,” I’ve heard. “You’re asking for it.” And then evolution and Darwin and lions and hourglass figures are brought into the mess and I begin feeling like little more than a baby-producing machine. Come on, people, it is 2014 – how about we do some actual evolving?

I take it as a compliment when a man finds me attractive. I do not believe a man buying me a drink or praising my smile is a jerk, that he is objectifying me, reducing me to arm candy or his plaything. Attraction and objectification are not necessarily one and the same. Objectification is when a male employee or manager suggests I will make more tips if I show more cleavage.

Objectification is when a man asks if our first date is birthday sex.

Objectification is when a man tells me that, because I am an attractive writer, I must be a good sexter. Objectification is when I am expected to adjust my cleavage and suck in my stomach to be allowed into a nightclub, when a man implies I am too pretty to be the sole supplier of my outrageous rent payment, when I am less than the sum of my parts. I am what you have sex with, not who.

In earlier years objectification made me insecure. I found my womanly purpose in appeasing men, satisfying his inherent need – no, male right – to consistently see beautiful women. I believed it was my obligation to be attractive. So, I woke up 90 minutes early for the 6th grade and applied makeup. I wore floral skirts that barely met dress code. I apologized when an 8th grade boyfriend broke up with me because a girl offered him sex when I wouldn’t. I apologized a second time when this happened again, with a different boyfriend, in the 11th grade.

Women are sexual beings. We are almost all sexual beings. What I grapple with is, how did we go from sexy to sex objects, from something inherently natural to something crass and demeaning?

I don’t like Halloween. I dread dressing up in clown suits or as a minion or a hyper-sexualized angel, but sometime around 8 p.m. this Halloween I thought, I don’t want to look like myself tonight. I was upset over a slump in my writing, or my financial instability, or very possibly a guy – I don’t remember. So, in an obscure form of escapism, I bought a short black wig. I colored my lips red and wore a revealing top. No less than 10 minutes after the subsequent (obligatory?) selfie hit Instagram timelines everywhere, I received a text message.

“You have a great rack.”

The insecurity has since alchemized to guilt. So often growing up I believed a passion or yearning for anything sexual, for baring cleavage, for wearing shorts that did not pass my fingertips, was inappropriate. Sexy was inappropriate, or if not inappropriate per say, sexy was some man’s justification for degrading me. In other instances, sexy was a woman’s justification to side-eye me, spread rumors on a fictionalized sex life. Sexy means I lack intellect; I lack power or esteem or better judgment. Sexy meant slut.

At what point, and to what disapproval and outcry, can women say: “Yes, I am a sexual being, but do not mistake that for weakness or vacuity. Do not demean me to a mere object”? Oh, what’s that? We can’t? Culturally we regard men as complex beings: intelligent, funny, brave, what have you. Women, despite years of progress and this alleged evolution, we simplify. She wears lingerie in a photograph and is immediately reduced to insecure, histrionic, simple-minded, vain. Similarly, she studies at an Ivy League and thus lacks this similar sexual appetite or identity. The two cannot co-exist, unless, of course, this is pornography or an advertisement featuring plaid mini-skirts.

While drafting this essay, I was accepted into a creative writing workshop and secured the necessary letters of recommendation for my graduate school applications. During the time this essay is published, I will be waiting tables (at a restaurant that does not elicit a sexualized culture), expected to wear a push up bra and lean forward while serving Bud Lights to male buyers. I am not valued for the service I offer my customers; I am valued for my looks and my parts, mere pieces of my whole, and because I will not adhere to these societal pressures, I will later be told that this is why my tips suffer. In shame I will hide my breasts, contemplate the accuracy of that sentiment, and that right there – the moment I think maybe, just maybe, my breasts and sex appeal will substantiate me despite my career accomplishments – is why objectification is harmful, not empowering.

image – Shutterstock