THE BLOG
11/24/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

India, Kim Kardashian, and the Comet: How a Week in the News Illuminates the Value We Place On Women

This month, within a span of a week, more than a dozen women died in India after undergoing a sterilization operation, an image of American celebrity Kim Kardashian's exposed buttocks on the cover of Paper magazine went viral, and the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission successfully landed on the surface of a comet. At first glance, these three events have little in common, but their intersection illuminates that around the globe, a woman's value is inveterately tied to her body.

After news of the tragedy in India broke, several articles followed that focused on female sterilization. In India, 37 percent of married women use sterilization -- tubal ligation -- for contraception, while in contrast, only 1 percent of married men have a vasectomy. Many of the sterilization procedures are performed at government-sponsored population-control "camps" that target and coerce women as a way to curb population growth. A study using data from the National Family Health Survey found that poor, marginalized, and under educated women are targeted the most for the procedure. The women who undergo this surgical and permanent form of contraception rarely do so because they want to harness their sexual freedom or pursue personal career goals; more often they are misled or offered financial or welfare incentives.

I have seen this firsthand. As a college student contemplating a medical career, I stood at the bedside of an illiterate and poor woman in a dusty Indian hospital. Because she was not capable of signing her name, she provided a thumbprint to consent to be sterilized. Then, after donning reusable gloves, a surgical mask, and flip flops, I joined the surgeon as he met the patient in an operating room. Once the procedure started, I left the room because the screaming from the anesthetized but conscious woman as her abdomen was opened was horrific.

Unsafe and botched procedures are not uncommon. From April 2010 to March 2013, about 510 million rupees ($8 million) were paid out for 15,264 deaths and failed sterilization surgeries. When so many Indian women are targeted, harmed, and even killed as a consequence of their reproductive potential, it is good that there is more international media attention and harsh criticism of this practice. However, it's also an example of how Americans are quick to pass judgment on how other cultures treat women overlooking the gender bias in our own country.

Consider that at the same time news broke about the events in India, ogling, ridicule, and judgment came pouring in over nude pictures of celebrity Kim Kardashian. These images were published simply because Paper magazine knew the public would look at them. Unlike the women in India, the use of Kardashian's body to feed a societal demand was not forced or brought about through gross coercion. No one made her stand in front of a camera naked. She is far from indigent. Our culture's desire for, and acceptance of, the sensationalized sexualized female body was the driving force behind the physical exposure and exploitation of Kardashian; she was responding to the value our society and culture place on the objectified female body.

According to the American Psychological Association, in all forms of media, women are portrayed in a sexual manner and are objectified more often than men. Research demonstrates that sexualization has deleterious effects on multiple facets of a woman's life. From a cognitive standpoint, self-objectification detracts and fragments one's attention, negatively influencing performance on logical reasoning or mathematical computation. Emotionally, sexualization and objectification are linked to anxiety, shame, self-disgust, and depression.

Girls and young women who are exposed to images that sexualize women are more likely to place physical appearance at the center of women's value. Our culture's fascination with the naked (and presumably perfect) female body does nothing to empower women and arguably results in a fair amount of repression. As a mother of two little girls and an obstetrician, I am especially concerned about how our societal emphasis on the female body impacts girls' self-esteem and career ambitions.

The publicity surrounding the Kardashian photo is in stark contrast to the lack of coverage of the women who were part of the successful Rosetta mission. The pictures and stories of the women on the European Space Agency team did not go viral despite their intelligence, hard work, and impressive accomplishment. An online search resulted in 10 times as many news hits about the magazine cover than the Rosetta mission in general.

The absence of attention to the scientific triumph and intelligence embodied in the women who were part of the Rosetta mission is not an anomaly. Most people do not know the contributions or successes of Esther Lederberg, Lise Meitner, or Rosalind Franklin. These women contributed a great deal to science, yet they remain overlooked, living in the shadows of sexual icons and beauty queens.

Globally, we need to reevaluate how we value women. We should support agencies and groups that work to free Indian women of cultural reproductive expectations. It is important that we fight for access to diverse family planning options for the poor and marginalized women in India. And in the United States, we must ensure that our young girls know and believe that they are not merely a subject of sexual objectification, but that they smart and powerful. We can help by being mindful of the media we consume and propagate. Instead of focusing on the bodies of female celebrities, we should demand more coverage of events like the Rosetta mission. It is time we teach our girls that they can shoot for the stars.