How many times a day do you look in the mirror? How often do you check you reflection in shiny surfaces or windows? Fact is most people are constantly aware of how they look, checking if their hair looks identical to when they left home, if their outfit sits right or how posture and physique attribute to their overall image. When you walk through life, you’re simply confronted with your physical appearance to the point it can impact your experience of life.
While society itself is a major factor in upbringing, keeping and rewarding this awareness of looks, medias like advertisements or social media enhance pressure on individuals by portraying bodies in a sexualized way. This may be used to access targeted groups more easily – true to the motto ‚sex sells’. It then creates an ideal individuals feel pressured to perpetuate – they emulate this sexualization, they ‘self-sexualize’. Social Medias like Instagram or Snapchat act as a catalysator for this true to their platforms being traditionally used for self-portrayal. This leads to the sexualization of them on the internet by a nearly unidentifiable audience – bodies and looks in those pictures become a fantasy sold, they become object of desire.
This can be defined as a never-ending circle of objectification and self-objectification. Objectification is “(…) a notion central to feminist theory. Which can be roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philoshophy) many add that objectification may be a consequence of sexual goals (of men). It occurs when body or body parts are alienated from the being and are viewed as object (of sexual desire) disregarding the subject. One of the most important analysis’s up to date are Nussbaum’s seven features: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership and denial of subjectivity. Langton adds: reduction to body, reduction to appearance and silencing. Тhey describe in detail what objection can look like and create a scheme to identity it.
Even though objectification may seem like a harsh word used for an even harsher feminist truth, studies reflect the reality for many women: „one Australian study on a sample of 81 women found that in the timespan of one week, each woman reported being targeted for objectification between 3 to 4 times on average and witnessing sexual objectification of other women 9 to 10 times on average”. (Holland E, Koval P, Stratemeyer M, Thomson F, Haslam N. , 2017). Another example is that in a study 94% of sampled undergraduate women report unwanted objectifying sexual comments and behaviours at least once in the timespan of a semester (Swim, Cohen, & Hyers, 1998; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, & Ferguson, 2001).
Self-Objectification on the other hand describes the internalization of this phenomena: Individuals perceive themselves as something to be looked at and evaluated based on their appearance. Bartky states that “by being too closely identified with [their body]… [their] entire being is identified with the body, a thing which… has been regarded as less inherently human than the mind or personality”. There is a special focus on women in this theory as gender roles and patriarchal society determine objectification itself – meaning western society places a sexual focus on women’s bodies rather than abilities (Frederickson and Roberts). This doesn’t exclude men from the conversation, especially as the popularity of fitness culture has grown rapidly. Though the impact physical appearance has on experiencing life differs based on gender. Women’s bodies also are getting more often reduced to the sole purpose of visual pleasure (Bartky 1990; Bordo 1993).
In many women self-objectification can be expressed in ‘self-surveillance’ which has gained popularity in social media as “the male gaze” recently. The Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance edited by Thomas F. Cash defines it: “Self-surveillance has become conceptualized as the manifestation of self-objectification because it captures the habitual body monitoring that accompanies the adoption of an observer’s standpoint on one’s own body.”.
Objectification may trigger several mental health issues: roughly they can be categorized firstly, as direct objectification experiences and secondly, as the internalisation of named experiences as well as self-objectification (Fredericks and Roberts 1997). Primary consequences of objectification and self-objectification are anxiety about physical safety or body related disturbances which can range from body shame to body dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety. Mercurio and Landry state in 2008 that it also affects general indicators of well-being as well as satisfaction with life. Secondary consequences can be such as disordered eating behavior, sexual dysfunction, negative attitudes toward breastfeeding, self-harm or depression.
Additionally, Objectification and especially Self-Objectification are seemingly endless topics which intertwine with close to every single social issue. An example is that racism affects the objectification of women and men of color. This roots in the oversexualization of people of color, which is a problem assigned to todays systemic racism and the brutal colonial history of the global west. Overall, there is still too little coverage about issues concerning marginalized groups as studies have been mostly carried out on white women and didn’t put other living realities into account. Even though it has been a known issue and many studies have been published since, it will take some time to carry out long term studies and to have an in-depth insight about how objectification surfaces and impacts marginalized groups.
It is important to highlight that many important feminist figures like Martha Nussbaum don’t try to extinguish dressing up, caring for your looks or being sexual. Nussbaum states that: “(…) I do not think there is anything wrong in all these women participating in practices that are playful, that are fun, that are sexy. The only problem comes when that blurs into defining yourself as unequal, and of unequal dignity and worth.” (Literal Magazine, Issue: Literal 29). The most important part will always lay in the perception of yourself. You’re a subject, an individual which contributes to society and life itself, far before you become an object for anyone elses needs and wishes or before your looks surpass your character. You should try to put this into account before judging yourself and judging other people.