Objectification broadly means treating a person as an object or commodity without evaluating any other attributes, including someone’s personality. A person’s body and their sexual body parts are viewed as separate from the person.
A dehumanising and prevalent societal affair, issues concerning objectification were raised as early as the 1970s, and since then, its repercussions have only become clearer in all phases of life.
Early on, Immanuel Kant concluded that objectification meant lowering a person’s humanity to that of a mere object. According to him, humanity allows a person to make rational choices. This essential quality sets us apart from animals and inanimate objects, providing us with a sense of dignity and self-worth.
Quite often, objectification affects our self-perception, becoming so ingrained into society that it has become the default response to a person’s body. Objectification can be seen and studied in visual media and art; it can also be noticed in public spaces where women are judged unfairly and often non-consensually based solely on their aesthetic appearance. Media and advertisements are the main factors for mass objectification and for normalising this behaviour.
More than men, women are associated through their bodies and valued for their appearance. Women are constantly under pressure to “correct” their appearance that fits into the idealised notions of beauty.
Sexual comments, objectifying gazes, body evaluation and unwanted sexual advances are all included in the plethora of ways that women are objectified. She is viewed as an object with the sole purpose of necessitating other’s pleasures, especially men. Objectification of women also evolves into a process of self-objectification. They internalise these judgements and start viewing themselves only as their physical bodies. Eventually, they take on the person of the objectifier towards their own bodies.
Objectified women are seen as less than human and undeserving of humane treatment. Women are made to believe that their intelligence, worth and capabilities do not matter and will never be acknowledged. Women also perceive themselves as being at risk from physical abuse and sexual violation. Since women are objects, men justify their use and abuse of women with no regard to their identity. Women are intentionally portrayed in such a way to reduce them to only their sexuality and men understand this as a sexual entitlement.
Another broader pattern of concern is when these women value their appearance more than their competence; they believe that it is futile to break down the existing gender inequalities. They refuse to take part in any gender-based social action. Eventually, all these behaviours progress to sexist outlooks in most men and some women. For men, objectification of women’s bodies contributes to the justification of the status quo – that men are socially superior to women, a notion that is set up and ingrained in many societies.
Men and women do not objectify equally, for the same reasons, or in the same way. While men objectify women for sexual gratification, several other factors contribute to the larger picture of female objectification by both men and women. It is common for older women and “aunties” to shame young women as being “loose” women for how they dress, talk, or behave. Objectified women are seen to emphasise their sexual allure to control or gain power over men. These women are grouped as less than human; other women wish to distance themselves from them for fear of social repercussions. The sexual openness of a woman, or even a perceived sexual openness, drives both men and women to objectify her.
While women’s objectification is what comes at once to minds, it is clear that not enough is studied about men’s objectification. There may be double standards applied to the objectification of men and women. Objectifying men seems to be trivial considering present social norms – a man’s agency is less likely to be overturned, or sexually exploited. While women’s bodies are more in focus in visual media, men’s faces are in focus, implicating a clear divide in the objectification of men and women. While men are objectified and sexualised in the media, they are not dehumanised, portrayed as objects, or posed as vulnerable and submissive. They are depicted as hyper-masculine and strong, not as a display of sexualised body parts. The problem arises when we consider how certain stereotypes and norms about men’s bodies are encouraged and even internalised.
There is a decisive difference in the ways men’s and women’s bodies are sexualised through media. This is clear in the way movies, TV shows, and other forms of media present men – muscular, with taut abs – qualities presented as aspirational. But audiences have a tough time differentiating aspiration from healthy and fulfilling. Attractive men are given roles in advertisements where their bodies play no significant part in the product’s value. Yet, the products sell because a handsome, shirtless man promoted them. The reason this does not get all the hype that sexualised advertisements of women do is the mere fact that there seems to be no “real” physical harm to men in the long term. But this is far from true.
Male actors and models on TV shows, movies and ads have the “perfect” ideal bodies, contributing to a decreased self-esteem in many men, furthering their aversion to their own bodies. It is rare to see a man who is not “fit” in the leading role; they are often side characters, usually playing the role of comic relief. This harms men’s body image perceptions and their psychological well-being.
Like women ones, men’s magazines are filled with articles and images on how men must look – what clothes to wear, how to be more muscular, what products to use, and so on. This increasing culture of men trying to reach the look of the “perfect” man is not a sign of progress, but rather refutes the argument that the problem is getting worse.
Objectification is spread not only through media but through family and peers as well. All of them come together to create a powerful force that influences the development of socio-cultural ideals, both positive and negative. Media, especially, portrays consistent images of what might be constructed as reality. Following this continued exposure to a false sense of reality, both men and women adopt a flawed perspective too. The issue arises when individuals exposed to these images expect nearly everybody to represent or mimic that standard. Those who fail to meet this standard are associated with lower worth. This eventually leads to men and women striving to meet these expectations at whatever cost, paving the way for low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders.
Of course, the media presents the argument that these aspirational ideals cater to the audience’s pre-existing expectations and wants. These arguments fail in most contexts, such as advertisements and music videos. Media does not just cater to these pre-existing expectations but also creates and shapes what audiences aspire to and what audiences think they need by subconsciously influencing desires and needs.
Recent feminist groups have taken this up as an opportunity to empower themselves through their bodies. Women have taken over social media platforms to reclaim their bodies. When earlier women were merely consumers of content, they are now content creators, putting out their ideas, not ones that have been white-washed with the male gaze. Several older women are also coming forward with their own ideas of identity, pushing out the norms that older women should not be visible and should be non-sexual mothers and caregivers.
Several theorists believe that the only solution to objectification is resolving gender inequality. However, others argue that the only way to go about it is changing society, where women are subjectified, not objectified.
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This is an amazing article. Kudos, Nruthya!
Love how you included Toxic Masculinity which is often left out in conversations on Objectification.