If the movie Thelma and Louise were made today, the female protagonists would likely be ten years younger, slinking around in revealing clothing and shown nude in at least one explicit sex scene. And it would be marketed to teens. The sexual objectification of girls and women in U.S. culture that was so indignantly challenged by many Second Wave feminists is now omnipresent, normalized and even embraced. Female bodies and body parts are increasingly shown as props to hock products, and young girls are routinely sexualized in the media (see, most recently, Miley Cyrus). This seismic shift in the terrain in the battle for sex equality has come with little fanfare, but a massive price tag in the form of self-objectification.
Self-objectification is the phenomenon of girls and women viewing themselves from an external vantage point, constantly monitoring their behaviors and bodies to maximize their appeal. This orientation harkens back to the Victorian Age, with girls raised to regard their bodies as projects to be improved and boys viewing their bodies as tools to master their environment. Rates of self-objectification have skyrocketed in the past decade, and young women are feeling the pressure to embrace and perform their own objectification with little critical analysis.
The young women I speak with in my classes inherently understand what I mean by "self-objectification," even if they don't know the fancy academic term. It emerges constantly in our lives: thinking about how we look, especially if the male gaze is present; feeling better about ourselves when we see a roll of fat spilling over another woman's jeans; thinking about dieting every time we eat (or avoid eating); scoping out the room/party/public space to see where we are on the "pretty girl pecking order."
Numerous studies conducted in the last decade have found that self-objectification is psychologically toxic. Girls and women who self-objectify are more prone to clinical unipolar depression; have lower self-esteem than others; experience lower personal efficacy (the belief in one's own capabilities), which is linked to diminished success later in life; display symptoms of anorexia and bulimia; feel disgust and shame about menstrual cycles and other natural bodily functions; experience lower cognitive functioning (because so much attention is dedicated to body monitoring); have a lower average grade point average; are more likely to suffer from sexual dysfunction; and have a diminished belief that they can impact the political process (lower political efficacy).
In my experience in college settings, many young women -- in a truly Orwellian gesture--celebrate their object status as a form of empowerment, through bare midriffs, killer cleavage and clothing with Playboy and Hustler brands that scream, "I am a sex object and proud of it!" In one sense, it is great to see young women displaying flagrant sexuality in ways they would never have done a generation ago, and it would be marvelous if these appearance choices reflected the female sexual freedom that feminists have fought so hard for. But they do not. Girls and women are being taught to eroticize male sexual pleasure as though it is their own, instead of exploring sexuality in truly empowering and satisfying ways.
The idea of empowerment through object status is illogical for the simple fact that subjects act, while objects are acted upon. By participating in their own objectification, girls/women place themselves in a position to be acted upon. The real power in this arrangement lies with boys and men who are socialized to believe that they are entitled to consume women as objects, in media and in "real life." I often hear the defensive response, "sex sells," but if this were the case we would see ample pictures of half-naked men as well given that women are sexual beings. So what is being sold here? Perhaps men are being sold a feeling of power by being constantly reminded that they are on the higher position of the subject/object hierarchy.
How, then, can we combat our self-objectification and, by default, our second-class status as women? First, we can recognize that the male=subject, female=object binary is neither natural nor neutral. Instead, it serves to maintain the existing sex hierarchies and further the oldest form of oppression in recorded history. A critical eye to messages in popular culture is helpful in recognizing and rejecting themes that promote self-objectification.
Boycotting is another potential tool in our arsenal. With new media available, we can readily identify companies that sell women as bodies, actively avoid them and spread the message. A major target would be Hollywood, which continues to present ridiculous female narratives: damsels in distress (DIDs), pining spinsters, fighting fuck toys (who appear to be empowered through their physical prowess but are sexually objectified for the male gaze). Why does The Little Mermaid sacrifice her very identity as a merperson to get her man? Why is the only prominent female character in Transformers simply window-dressing for the male lead and a reward for his heroism? Why does Ironman present us with several strong female characters but then reduce them to mere objects through the male protagonist's sexual exploits?
Finally, it is important to interrogate how our everyday actions are self-destructive. What would our lives look like if male attention were not the end-all of our existence? What if we moved away from the idea of our body as a project? What if our sexual expressions were based on our own pleasure, as opposed to a narrow, consumerist conception of men's sexual pleasure?
Today is the annual Love Your Body Day, launched ten years ago by the National Organization for Women to encourage people to speak out against demeaning images of women, and celebrate women in all our diverse sizes and shapes and hues. Maybe it's a good day, as well, to watch Thelma and Louise one more time.