“She doesn’t have to do it”: Female self-objectification and our complicity in the beauty myth

We all know what Hugh Hefner thinks of women, and his outdated misogyny has already been analyzed to death. For me, the interesting part happens when his interviews get filtered through the wider world. Earlier this month he was asked whether he objectifies women. He answered,

“The notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous. Women are sex objects. If women weren’t sex objects, there wouldn’t be another generation. It’s the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go ’round. That’s why women wear lipstick and short skirts.”

The news program I was watching played the clip, then panned to two female newscasters for commentary. The women laughed nervously. “Well,” said one, “I think a lot of people will excuse his comments because of his age… And women, we like to be looked at that way, sometimes.” Both women seemed extremely uncomfortable, and they cut away quickly to a local news story.

The image of the two heavily made-up, painstakingly styled women employed in an image-based profession struggling to negotiate Hefner’s statement illuminates an essential issue we have living as women today: How do we maintain a strong feminist identity in an image-based society? In our world, women are sex objects. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, we are constantly trying to be sexy but not too sexy, balancing carefully between the Madonna and the whore, striving to maintain control over an external self which is unrelentingly judged by the outside world.

When I saw this clip, I was at the gym. There I was, pumping away at the elliptical, which is pretty much as far away from fun as you can get, clocking my requisite 45 minutes and participating in the beauty myth with every cal/minute. As I scowled furiously at the overhead tv, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. I wasn’t on the elliptical for my own enjoyment, and I was there only partly for my health. I was there to maintain a body standard. I was, at that very moment, objectifying myself.

Regardless of profession, women are required to maintain a certain model of beauty standards. In job interviews, I’m expected to always wear make-up and high heels. I understand the professional wardrobe: the nice skirt or pants, the button-down shirt–but high heels? High heels hobble, hurt and inhibit my ability to move quickly. And yet I wear them, because I need a job, and I’ve been told they help my chances, and I can’t fight a global battle at the expense of my ability to make a living.

“When a brilliant critic and a beautiful woman… puts on black suede spike heels and a ruby mouth before asking an influential professor to be her thesis advisor, is she a slut? Or is she doing her duty to herself, in a clear-eyed appraisal of a hostile or indifferent milieu, by taking care to nourish her real gift under the protection of her incidental one?”

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

Can we participate in the beauty myth and still garner respect? How can these newscasters protest Hefner’s statement without feeling hypocritical? Can we in good conscience profit off of our object-hood, and do we have a choice not to even try? Society isn’t fair. No amount of hard work will be fairly compensated, no degree will stop people from looking at our chest.

Worst of all, the myth says that we do this to ourselves. It is guilt, and not anger at an unfair world, that puts the uncomfortable expressions on the newscasters’ faces. They can’t rebuff Hefner because they are led to believe that it’s their fault. They are agents of their own objectification. They willingly transform themselves into sex objects every morning they get dressed in professional but body-conscious suits, and paint their lips red. They profit off of it, like women getting free drinks at a bar.

But is it really even free will? Do they, or we, really even have a choice? To a certain extent, yes, we are complicit– but do we really lose all feminist credentials when we participate in self-objectification? Sure, we could get a free drink–but a free drink really doesn’t compensate for the fear, the guilt, the danger and the constant struggle of living in a female body, not to mention generations of oppression, lesser pay and endless damage and on top of it all, an “it’s her own fault” mentality which pushes all the liability back to us.

The newscasters wouldn’t have even gotten the job without lipstick, and they’re still paid less than men–but they feel guilty, we feel guilty, for participating in our own objectification. Guilty enough not to protest when Hugh Hefner reduce us to empty sex objects, guilty enough to relinquish our ability to protest at all, because sometimes we wear a short skirt.

5 Responses to “She doesn’t have to do it”: Female self-objectification and our complicity in the beauty myth

  1. brittany says:

    interesting point. On one hand, I definitely agree with you. But on the other, don’t you think women are expected by society to look a certain way? Its almost like they aren’t only viewed as sex objects, but women with make up and feminine dress are seen as true women. For instance, how tabloid magazines show “shocking” pictures of women without their make up. Or how lesbians (androgynous or butchier ladies) are thought of as “too ugly to get a man.”
    When talking about the newscasters Rachel Maddow came to mind. She is an attractive lesbian, many have crushes on her. She wears big boxy glasses, has short dark hair, and when not on camera, looks very gay and sometimes like a boy. Yet when in front of the camera, the glasses are gone, the hair is styled, and the make up is applied. Its almost like she, and her network, know she would not be taken seriously if she looked so openly gay. Yet at the same time, she reserves that persona for the show only, even magazine shoots she looks like herself. What does that say about her? Or about the standards for women? I guess I’m sort of proving your point.

    On the other hand, my girlfriend, a self proclaimed loud and proud feminist, loves going out wear short shorts and tights and boots. Her theory is that its her body and shes proud of it and wants to be able to dress and feel sexy if she wants. Unfortunately, men still think she is dressing up for them. But she isn’t. Doesn’t a women have a right to feel and look sexy without being objectified?

  2. Shane says:

    When you walk into a shop and buy something aren’t you objectifying the shop staff? After all you don’t care about their personal or intellectual abilities. Their importance to you is only in their ability to scan barcodes and operate the till, a task so simple that some big supermarkets have replaced people with actual machines.

    I have been wondering about this for some time. People often show outrage at the sexual objectification of women, even those women who want to be objectified (e.g. those working for Playboy). Yet we objectify individuals all the time, using them for our commercial, artistic and intellectual benefit. I still haven’t quite figured out why sexual objectification alone is problematic.

  3. Shane says:

    Well much tabloid journalism is trash and plays to the readers’ lowest instincts and fears. I have zero interest in this kind of thing but I guess some people get a kick out of seeing beautiful celebrities brought down; perhaps it plays to their insecurities. Anyway I don’t really know!

    “Unfortunately, men still think she is dressing up for them.”

    Hehe I remember having a conversation with a female friend about this years ago who also explained that she liked to look good, but wasn’t concerned about how she appeared to men – she was dressing for herself. This was baffling to me! I sometimes think if the whole world was just hetreosexual men we’d all be dressed either in tracksuits (for comfort) or armour (to scare the other guys) :P Looking good is mainly for attracting a mate!

    More seriously this may puzzle some men who presume that women dressed attractively are looking to score. And like it or not, how we dress changes how people treat us. I used to have a battered black leather jacket and one day decided to wear a nice green swede thing instead. Later that day passing some teenage boys I noticed that one of them deliberately brushed shoulders with me, an aggressive act to indicate his dominance, a challenge. I was amazed – I’d never experienced that before – and I’m convinced the black leather had been dissuading them from hassling me before then, hinting (completely incorrectly!) that I was not to be messed with ;) So men too are judged and treated differently by how they appear.

    In the end I think we might not need to overthink this too much, or get too bothered about talk of sexism. Every individual can try to treat other individuals with respect. When we go to a shop and objectify the staff we can personalise it with thanks and eye contact for a moment. Men may notice and appreciate beauty in women, without staring or groping or hassling them.

    By the way the reason many women, even in TV journalism, look so attractive is probably because many men flicking through the channels on TV will pause just to look at a hot girl, regardless of what she is doing. Do heterosexual women watch channels just because of handsome men? Perhaps not to the same extent… but I have heard women remark that Russel Crowe was the best thing about Gladiators!

  4. WTF? says:

    @shane…..how do you know the teenage boy was brushing shoulders to “indicate his dominance”? Maybe he was clumsy? Maybe he was trying to brush up against your breasts? Maybe you sub-conciously set yourself up to be in his way? Fact is….you have no idea what he was thinking, and you do yourself a disservice to paint him as the aggressor just because he is male.

    • Shane says:

      It’s hard to know other people’s motivations and intentions, true – in all circumstances.

      However I have come to notice this on several occasions: different responses from gangs of young males towards me depending on my appearance. When I was in the rough old leather jacket they generally ignored me. Dressing better or more fashionable and these jeers and jostling were more likely.

      Rembering my own adolescent years this makes sense. The boys were constantly alert for targets, hoping to hassle and dominate others to improve their own status within the group. Judgements about who to bully like this are made on the spur of the moment, based on appearance.

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