Tag Archives: Objectification

Wound Up By His Wounded Ego: Exchanges With A Stranger

A few months ago, I had just moved to London from sunny Australia to pursue a more creative career path. The shock of transposing myself from the warm wading pool that was Brisbane – my beloved hometown in which most of my family and close friends reside – into the immense and choppy ocean that is London had me feeling a bit lonely. I was in a particularly low mood one Friday evening when I was the only person I knew in town for the weekend, and thus, for the first time in months, at a loose end with no one to hang out with.

I felt invisible – the only people who knew of my existence were myself and my otherwise-occupied flatmates, who I’d only just met a week before.

As I lugged my bag of groceries back towards the flat, a fresh-faced lad approached me.

“Hi… I’m sorry if this is a bit forward, but you are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen… what’s your name?”

“Oh, thank you,” I said, blushing and caught utterly off-guard. “I’m Sally.”

“Hi, I’m Cameron.”

We exchanged pleasantries, gave each other a couple of sentences worth of information about ourselves and what we do, then he asked if he could have my number to ask me out on a date.

I know what you’re thinking, and of course I was too. This is weird. I don’t know this person. But, let’s be honest – I didn’t know anyone, and I was literally just thinking I was invisible and have no one to hang out with. So… I might as well make one friend (or something), and what’s the worst that could happen? I could always say no later down the track.

I sheepishly gave Cameron my number and we parted ways.

Back at the flat, I was sitting outside on my balcony, enjoying a thoroughly uplifted demeanour by having a glass of wine and cooking dinner.

All of an hour later down the track, I got a text from Cameron. Hey Sally, any plans for tonight and the weekend? Not overly compelled to talk to this stranger again already, I ignored it and went back to what I was doing.

An hour after that, my phone rang. It was Cameron.

Cameron wanted me to go and see him at his professional weightlifting group training tomorrow morning. Already put off by his slightly tactless impatience, I politely declined his offer. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in watching a complete stranger lift weights and had some freelance work to do over the weekend, so the decision wasn’t difficult. He reluctantly accepted ‘no’ for an answer and promised to message me to arrange another date.

More or less certain that things would not work out between me and Cameron, I didn’t think about it again until he messaged me again a month later.

Hey sally

Not sure of what I would say even if that was worthy of a response, I ignored it again.

I thought it was over when Cameron didn’t message me again until a month later – yesterday – with this charming meme to give me a piece of his mind.

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Discomforted and rightfully pissed off, I showed my colleague with whom I was enjoying a beer in the sun at the time and asked if it was reasonable to respond harshly. I was urged to just ignore it and block him. A good option, I’m sure, but I wasn’t satisfied with that. I was pissed.

I’ve been flashed, wanked at, harassed and upskirted many times since my early adolescence, and I’ve never bit back at the perpetrator. I’ve been too shocked or reserved to stand up for myself – passivity is ingrained in the female psyche, but equally, I prefer to take the high road. But this time, I was fed up.

Look mate, I’m not interested. Stop messaging me. Also, f*ck you, that’s disgusting.

I blocked him on WhatsApp and thought I was done with it.

Ten minutes later (ever the model of patience) Cameron sent me a regular text message.

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Right then. Making the obvious decision to block him immediately, I spent the rest of the day thinking about exactly what this says about Cameron, about the society and culture in which we live, and – if anything – about me.

This is what I could discern.

  1. Cameron’s ego had been wounded, and – being extremely insecure – he lashed out at the girl who rejected him.

He ascertained some catharsis from insulting me, putting me down because I had slighted him and hurt his feelings.

Never mind that he doesn’t know me at all – after all, we had met for all of two minutes – he felt that I was now deserving of the titles fat, ugly and whore.

  1. My beauty – previously exceptional to him – and respectability – previously intact – were disqualified by my non-reciprocation of his romantic interest.

To Cameron, women – or at least, this woman – are only attractive and worthy of respect if they do as he pleases. If, however, they are not interested in him and reject his advances – however politely – they should no longer be told they are beautiful, but should be cut down and insulted, degraded for the promiscuous, mean-spirited whores that they are.

  1. In Cameron’s eyes, women to whom men express romantic interest owe those men the same in return, and that any failure to do so is a rude transgression of social codes.

Cameron believes that I owe him something because he wants me, and that I am a bitch for not electing to spend time with him, flirt with him and watch him lift weights. For the small ego boost he gave me all those months ago, I was indebted to him. When I failed to feed his fragile ego by watching him flex his muscles at training, Cameron wanted to take that boost back and punish me for not giving him what was rightfully his. He meditated on all that he knew about Sally, the girl he met for two minutes, to generate a highly original and factual insult with which he would put me back in my place.

Fuck you, you fat ugly whore ;).

Yep, you really made me look stupid.

This kind of exchange is an outrageous example of the kind of cultural problem that women still face today with the small demographic of men who share Cameron’s beliefs.

To those men, I deliver a response on behalf of women everywhere who have been antagonised for declining a man’s advances:

  1. You are not entitled to speak to women – or anyone – that way just because they rejected you. I am entitled to say no;
  2. My beauty and worthiness of respect are in no way qualified by my romantic interest, or lack thereof, in you; and
  3. I don’t owe you anything.

From the bottom of our hearts, f*ck you.

Kind regards,

Sally.

Taking back the female body

Truth be told, we live in a society that objectifies women. Women’s bodies are used to sell anything and everything in advertising, acting as objects of visual pleasure in television, cinema and magazines. Historically, this has been because advertising and mass media industries have been dominated by men, whose primary audiences for cars, real estate, technology and household products were men as the breadwinners in patriarchal society.

Many women now work in advertising and media, political correctness in advertising is legally mandated, and transgressions from it are quickly repealed and publicly roasted by media watchdogs. fairlife-pinup-ad-2But this does not preclude the use of barely clothed female bodies in advertisements for completely unrelated products, nor the brazen reinforcement of gender stereotypes in the construction of a selling point. It’s gotten to the point that women are even objectified in media and publications aimed at female audiences: sanitary products, clothing lines and toiletries provide fertile ground for examination of this problematic tendency.

waxing

The way mass media portrays it, women relish their own objectification. Let’s take ads for hair removal products: women in these advertisements sensuously extend their smooth, slender, long legs, relieved to have avoided the disaster of baring any hairs at all on their limbs in public. This 2012 ad for beauty salon Uni K Waxing, which offered 50% discounts on waxing treatments for girls 15 years and younger, perpetuates the notion that hairlessness is a basic necessity – the norm – thereby including girls not even legal to have sex yet in the sexualisation of their bodies.

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“Are you summer-ready?” this protein supplement ad asks. Why, yes, I would say. I can’t wait to hit the beach. But this advertiser isn’t asking about my emotional or psychological eagerness for summer: it’s asking if my body is ready to be shown in public. Let’s see: am I completely hairless? Have I done a summer slim-down by one form or the other of starvation? Have I bought antiperspirant that will prevent my production of body odour, lest I be revealed as a real, hair-growing, food-eating, perspiring human being? The answer to these questions from all women in ads is “Yes, of COURSE I am, and I’m pleased to be so!”

Because of this treatment of women in mass media, the denial or concealment of our own biological truths has become normal. One aspect of the female biology is particularly taboo, and has been appropriated for advertising audiences in a far more palatable form. Menstruation is a fun, music and laughter filled time at which we gather for sleepovers to discuss sanitary products and embarrassing period-related experiences. We valiantly go about our daily business – yoga, shopping, wearing white skirts – comfortable in the knowledge that this pad will absorb any pastel blue, water-like liquid that comes its way, while maintaining maximum flexibility and minimum visibility. Clearly, up until now, girls have had to stop going on dates, wearing anything but granny undies, working out or being in the public eye while menstruating. That way, no one ever has to know. Because that would be the worst thing: for anyone to find out that you were menstruating, because that is GROSS.

In this recent ad by sanitary line Sofy, a beauty’s period arrives in the form of a plain-faced, overweight caricature of herself enacting period-related behaviours: eating junk food in front of the TV, erupting in anger over the non-delivery of pizza and bursting into tears in the same breath; leaving her after a few days as her usual, acceptable self. To be honest, I actually found this ad hilarious – my own experience of periods and PMS is typified by involuntary crying about anything from cute animals to everyday frustrations (opening a tricky latch; having to re-load the toilet paper in the right direction), and the immense bloating of my abdomen renders my self image to cavernous, pizza-ridden lows. But it is offensive in a number of ways, most obviously, its trivialisation of an aspect of female biology that has in the past been used to discredit and belittle women.

 

BMW Ultimate AttractionSome ads encourage the “boys will be boys” mentality – man creates secret cave to avoid his wife while she makes dinner for the family; bikini-clad women apparate to fulfil a beer’s promise of something good upon consumption; girlfriend vetoes the cordless drill purchased by her disobedient boyfriend and trades it for cash. Or this BMW ad, my objection to which I can’t imagine needs explaining.

 

 

Or this Old Spice ad in which bikini-clad women fawn over a man because he just smells so damn good – whether it is his irresistible fragrance, the sensual bubbles massaging their bodies in the hot tub or their implied lack of cognition, they don’t even realise that he is a robot rather than a real man.

There are so many things wrong with these representations of contemporary culture – in fact, they are insulting not only to women but also to men in a society moving away from gender stereotypes – that I hardly know where to begin.

I think what needs to be said is this: bikini-clad women may continue to appear in ads for television channels and phone plans, hairlessness may continue to be next-to-godliness, and menstruation may continue to be a misunderstood, unsavoury spectacle for us to conceal at all times (it is only the reason that all human life exists, and the source of approximately $25 million per year in taxes on sanitary products in Australia, after all). We may not be able to stop it – at least not without years of laborious legal action. What we can do is move away from passively enabling this objectification by taking back ownership of our bodies, as was the message of feminist art group COMBO’s Paris demonstration (featured image).

With so many factors appropriating our bodies for commercial use, it’s easy to be swayed by the notion of femininity that they perpetuate. But as owners of our own bodies, the only thing that matters is our own perception and our own prerogative: wax when we want, satirise periods how we want to, be naked when we want, be sexual when we want to be. This doesn’t mean that we have to stop enacting the gestures of femininity to which we are accustomed: being an empowered woman does not forbid grooming, waxing or relishing sex appeal. It just means liberating ourselves by considering only our own opinion, our own wishes and our own self image in matters of body and beauty.

Advice to my teenage self

If I could pass only one message of wisdom to my adolescent self, it would be this:

STOP READING FASHION MAGAZINES.

I used to torture myself on a weekly basis with the latest runway pictures, supermodel editorials and beauty features in Bazaar, Vogue, Yen and Cosmo. I’d starve and self-loathe to inch closer to the unattainable goal of waifdom, forcing my blessedly healthy teenage mind and body through years of demoralisation and damage. I’d obsess over photoshopped images of underweight models in exorbitantly luxe clothing and jewellery, bargaining with the universe to make me exactly like her.

I watched movies with Cool Girl / Beautifully Damaged / Deceptively Vulnerable Ice Queen protagonists and took internal notes on Ways To Be Desirable. Wear hair in messy bun. Wear adorably mismatched socks. Buy lingeree. Be aloof and cold / vulnerable and innocent. Be wild and impulsive / dorky and creative. Be a carefree tomboy / smouldering glamazon.

All of these things that I desperately wanted to attain – would have traded my own body for in an instant – are completely removed from my actual self, and in fact any real person. They are constructs: edited images of elaborately designed settings and heavily made-up faces and hair. Celebrities, movie heroines and television stars are characters created to engage with audiences (including my impressionable teenage self) by possessing qualities we desire, such as beauty, spontaneity, mysteriousness and sex appeal. These archetypal identities are so cogent and mesmerising that we are convinced they are attainable realities. In his book Money for Nothing (2007), media theorist Saul Austerlitz proffers that we in turn project our own self-image onto these constructs and make adjustments to assimilate – a theory validated by the Advertising industry’s best known strategies, particularly for selling products to women.

Hollywood cinema, reality television, advertising and popular media outlets historically present women in a shallow, limited way, usually fashioning female characters into passive, compliant, sexualised and disposable objects of desire. By shoving it down our throats from every possible platform, a series of roles have been created which we inevitably try to perform in order to conform to mass media’s idealistic contemporary identity – Cool Girl, Damaged Beauty, Sex Kitten, Trophy Wife. We don’t want to be like us, we want to be like them, because their perfect faces, perky breasts, effortlessly cool demeanour and happy-ending-romance story are almost all of what we see and are told is right.

One tenet of feminist ideology is exploration of the effect of mass media’s representation of women on the contemporary female experience. Theorists Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane are key contributors to this discourse, placing the onus for imposing a severely limited range of roles on women on the ‘boys club’ that is, or at least, historically has been, mass media. Also perceiving mass media as operated by men with the primary objective of engagement with male audiences, theorist Joan Riviere proposes that in a mass media world, femininity is defined only by its absence of, or opposition to, masculinity.

Jose Gomez Fresquet circa 1970

The effects of this on our formation of identity are complex and variable – Doane claims that women can be compelled to exaggerate gestures of femininity, calling to mind contemporary normalities such as breast augmentation, lash extensions, garish make-up and the almost mandated, never-ending quest for hairlessness.

I cannot overlook  mass media’s effect on school-age girls, either: anyone privy to the goings-on of high schools and their students will know that the objectification and sexualisation of women in mass media trickles into impressionable communities, resulting in a range of scandals of the nudity-on-social-media variety.

In her study of mass media and related technologies effect on contemporary identity formation, theorist Rosalind Krauss  suggests that in a world in which disembodied versions of ourselves can be constructed with images, ideas and social or material associations – i.e. our social media profiles – that now the self requires mediation in order to be verified or completed (1986, p184). This theory is corroborated by ‘instafamous culture’ in which young women attain a type of fame predicated on their construction of an idealised lifestyle and selfhood, usually by exploiting their bodies. The culture perpetuates the notion that self-worth can and should be externally validated, in this instance by the number of likes on a photo and followers on a profile.

Earlier this month our news feeds were saturated with the story of an Australian teen who revealed that her instagram profile was conflated with photoshopped images and painstakingly curated product placements. Essena O’Neill went on to say that her ‘perfect’ slender figure is tortuously maintained by starvation and enhanced by state-of-the-art breast-boosting bra technology. These revelations, while staggeringly obvious to me as an educated 25-year-old woman, are far less clear to teenage girls, whose social vulnerability makes them susceptible to mental health issues such as eating disorders for which social media can be a breeding ground. But the reality is this: statistically speaking, only about 5% of women have the body type represented in fashion media, yet over one half of teenage girls and one quarter of university-aged women use unhealthy weight control behaviours such as fasting, vomiting and taking laxatives – 35% of whom will progress from ‘normal’ to pathological dieting or full-syndrome eating disorders.

And it’s for this reason that I deliver this hypothetical address to my teenage self, still under mass media’s spell, fruitlessly trying to match my appearance and behaviours to the falsehoods it peddles.

Beauty is subjective: everybody has different looks, figures, personalities and lifestyles that they desire and seek. I am gobsmacked by this reality at times: a friend of mine recently scoffed at my declaration that Kim K is irrefutably and extremely hot. She’s just not my jam, he said. Another male friend was discordant with my similar assertion that Heidi Klum was the perfect woman. These opinions were incomprehensible to me before I’d heard them – they have the sexiest possible figures, most flawless skin and hair, most covetable wardrobes and enviable, opulent lifestyles.

Of course we think like that – they have millions to spend on beauty and wardrobe, maintaining gorgeous bodies comprises a large part of their occupation, and a gaggle of PR agents, publicists and marketing professionals are paid to deliver their perfect public image right to our doorsteps.

Furthermore – and most importantly – they are not everyone’s type. It shouldn’t take a man’s opinion to make me realise that, either: decades of taking the mass-mediated archetype of female desirability as gospel is what’s backed us into this corner in the first place. Enormous breasts, a tiny waist, a big, beautiful behind and long, black hair is not everyone’s type, nor is statuesque and svelte with Scandinavian colouring. The rule applies to traits beneath the surface, too: some like bubbly, extroverted personalities while some find them irritating and tiresome. I, for example, have an unshakeable (and non-deliberate) penchant for European men, while I have friends whose dating records feature locals only. Hell, there are people out there who love rat’s tails and merkins, and who are we to judge?

What I’m trying to say is this: there is no point trying to be or look like someone else, because ‘beauty’, ‘sex appeal’ and ‘attractive personality’ are completely subjective. The qualities that are universally desirable are confidence, happiness and authenticity. We are drawn to happy, confident people whose qualities we are inclined to admire and emulate in the course of being happy and confident ourselves. Confidence is the greatest marketing tool for our authentic selves, and authenticity – being true to our personalities – is the only way that I have found to be truly happy.

After years of insecurity and self-loathing, I now consider myself enlightened through this knowledge. I love myself, exactly as I am. I’m a homebody no longer masquerading as a night-clubber; I’m a mesomorph no longer attempting to defy the laws of genetics; I’m a planner no longer pretending to enjoy utterly unplanned weekends or holidays. This is my own kind of cool, my own kind of beautiful and my own kind of desirable, and everyone has their own brand. If we had the reach and power of mass media our brand would be popular too. But to be honest, I don’t even care what everyone else thinks – since accepting myself as awesome, I am infinitely happier, and since accepting my body as beautiful, I am healthier. Confidence in myself allows me to dismiss any negative opinions or actions as ill-conceived, immaterial and/or false; and ceasing to act out of insecurity makes my actions and words authentic. No pretending, no lying and no self-hatred.

If I could have imparted this wisdom on my poor, hungry, confused, desperate, insecure, depressed adolescent self six years ago, I would have half a decade of extra happiness under my belt. I believe, though, that those years are responsible for the intensity with which I value myself and the understandings of my experience as a woman I gained which freed me from the futile quest to be someone else. Central to this is to stop allowing false and constructed images and ideas define beauty and start looking, lovingly, within.

Images: 

Inset: Jose Gomez Fresquet (Cuba), Lipstick, c. 1970

Featured: Installation view (courtesy of Capricious 88 Gallery) of Swedish artist Cajsa von Zeipel’s Pony Tails: To Live, Play, Move and Clash As She Will (2014) at Capricious 88 in New York City. Von Zeipel’s work explores the objectification of women for visual pleasure, making a statement by showing them as sexualised, fetishised objects on display in an art museum. I first came across Von Zeipel’s art at Goteborgs Konstmuseum in 2013 where I saw part of her similarly topical exhibition Sex, Cigarettes and Angry Girls and snapped one of her striking muses for my Samling:

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