This past weekend I took a class called “Exploring Social Issues Through Drama.” As part of the class, we each chose a social issue to explore. I chose objectification of women, inspired by a female friend who told me about harassment she’d experienced that week. While on a packed train, a man took advantage of the situation and aggressively pressed himself against her. She didn’t say anything, just moved away, frightened she would only escalate the situation. No one on the train did or said anything. With her story heavy on my heart, I used the class time to explore this topic and how it affects all women, whether we realize it or not.
Ironically, this is the week that the photo of Kim Kardashian’s bare butt debuted, displaying quite clearly to the world that controversy is deeply imbedded in this issue. It should come as no surprise that women (and men) everywhere feel the need to address the photo shoot. And while talking about it is of course exactly what Kardashian intended, the issue has to be discussed. We are, as a culture, silent bystanders, watching a metaphorical (and all too real) sexual assault on the subway. It’s time to talk about it.
The facets of the issue are endless. Leaving aside for now the question of photoshop (related to objectification) and the disturbing connections to racism and sexism in photographer Jean-Paul Goode’s work and personal life, the question of objectification of the female body rises up front and center. What should be quite obvious is that Kardashian herself is the one doing the objectifying. Yes, she is part of a culture that puts immense pressure on women to buy into the role of sexual plaything, and yes she is responding to societal demand. But when it comes down to it, she is the one that took off her clothes.
I’ve realized recently that one of the biggest problems with the feminist movement is that it means so many different things to different people. There are many tenets of feminism that I identify with, and simply because I am a woman and care about women’s issues, I recognize that I can and should call myself a feminist. But there are also feminists who bare their butts on the covers of magazines, and pass it off as a step toward less body-shaming or toward sexual freedom. While I’ve never heard Kardashian explicitly call herself a feminist, women like Scout Willis and Chelsea Handler seem to be constantly on Instagram crusades to allow topless photos, and Beyonce has certainly identified quite strongly with the movement. (Though it gets sticky talking about Queen Bey, because that conversation tends to get intermixed with discussions of race and cultural expectations.)
The issue became crystal clear to me while talking with my brother, who I called during a break from my social issues class. I asked him what his response was to the feminist movement, and he replied, “Well, it depends on what you mean by that.” As we talked he expressed confusion about the stances of women; he felt he supported many of the arguments, but was unsure about many of the intentions and affiliations within the idea of feminism. Because there were so many voices with such divergent views, he was hesitant to claim the banner of feminism as something he could completely stand under.
In talking with my roommate, the matter became even more tricky. As a woman who works at a pub in midtown Manhattan, she is constantly being objectified, being told: “Come over here baby so I can grab that ass.” But her words gave me pause when she began to talk about how women treat themselves. She described the outfits girls wear on Halloween, and how they’re clearly expecting men to look at them in a sexual way on that night. “Girls want to be cute and sexy on Halloween, but then they want to walk down the street the next day and not get any comments. It’s like they want to be selectively objectified,” my roommate said.
I want to tread lightly here, because I do not mean to suggest that women should feel obliged to hide their bodies, or that they bear the responsibility of keeping men in line. And I certainly don’t want anyone to think a woman is ever “asking for it,” or any of the other justifications used for objectification, sexism and violence. But both my brother’s and my roommate’s comments have something pertinent to offer this messy business of Kim Kardashian’s butt (and boobs, apparently. If you buy the magazine and flip to the inside.)
How seriously would you take a man who exposed himself on the cover of a magazine?* I think this is an important thing to think about. I believe that bodies are beautiful and we should be proud of them, but there’s a cultural precedent built into society that indicates that it’s okay to display the female body for the delight of men. Kardashian’s photos support this flawed view, to say nothing of the dangers of the photoshopping involved in the photo.
As much as I hate to say it, those who desire change have to—at least somewhat—play by the rules of the dominant culture. There is a balance to be struck between stirring the pot and allowing people time and incentive to change their minds, and that change has to come from the heart. Just as guilt and shame are horrible motivators, rage and defiance don’t work either. If we are to build a culture in which men stop making comments about my “titties” on the street, and in which women feel their voices are heard and respected, women have got to stop playing into the stereotypes.
Kim Kardashian is not desperate—she’s not trying to make a living or a name for herself and being forced to use whatever means she can. She has an incredible amount of money and power, and a platform to say whatever she wants. Until women like her stop objectifying themselves, we are going to keep having these same conversations, over and over.
*Which, by the way, has happened—as is evident from articles such as this one. I need to note here that this isn’t exclusive to women, and men are playing into their stereotypes as well. It’s just far more common for women.
Whatever your stance on the issue, this post by my friend Courtney is worth reading. She's not interested in yelling or arguing. She just shares her honest, beautiful story of anorexia, pregnancy, and, ultimately, love.
Take a look at Courtney's eloquent words.
We are a society of all types of women. We are old and we are young, we are short and we are tall, we are big and we are small. Supposedly, we are all beautiful. But as I think more about older women, and the way we live in relation to one another--and particularly as I live my American media and culture infused life--I know, as we all know, that this message is not the one we believe. And our fixation on beauty (or our lack of beauty) often results in the fact that we don’t realize how influential our own actions are. Especially as we relate to each other. So what I want to say is this:
Mothers should tell their daughters that they--the mothers--think they themselves are beautiful.
This might be a shocking idea, especially in the Christian subculture where modesty is a hot topic and false modesty abounds. Plus, beauty itself is a tricky subject, because the question, “What is beauty,” is so slippery. No one denies that most of us have built in triggers that go off when certain physical characteristics appear. However, there’s also no denying that love transforms the beauty of the beloved--and not just in the way of forgetting physical flaws. As love deepens, a lover often begins to truly see their beloved as physically beautiful, even if he or she is not a great beauty. The same goes for familial love. Beauty, I believe, is a combination of body and soul. But back to the issue at hand.
My own mother, like every woman, has her own insecurities. But I have no memory of her discussing her personal appearance as I grew up. I never heard her complain about her weight, or wish for a different hair color, or talk about another woman’s beauty relative to her own. It’s only now that I am an adult myself that she has started sharing her insecurities with me. I am only just beginning to understand how priceless a gift she gave me. Until I reached high school I had a minimal amount of body-related angst. I wanted to look pretty, and I coveted and longed for my friends’ clothing and accessories. But the thought that my body might not be good enough did not occur to me until I was well into puberty.
I’ve never really thanked my mother for this. I’m not even sure she did it intentionally. But I know that it was huge. And I believe that as women, and as Christians, we can take this one step further. We can tell our daughters that they are beautiful, surely. But we can also tell them that we are beautiful.
As with everything, this requires thought and wisdom. A longing for and appreciation of beauty can easily become vanity. This was a timeless moral until the 20th century, when the pop world went crazy and we all became inundated with hundreds of images a day. So something that would have perhaps seemed incredibly selfish a hundred years ago--proclaiming one’s own beauty--has become a matter of importance. Let me explain.
When I was a little girl, I believed that my mother was beautiful. Truly, absolutely beautiful. She was strong and protective and wise, and to me, she was perfect. She was my mother. If she had told me she was not beautiful--if she had complained about her body, and had let me see that her imperfections were unacceptable--I would have been devastated. And then I would have had to ask, “Well, who is beautiful, then?”
When little girls aren’t allowed to believe that their mother is beautiful, the search leads them to the unreal expectations we all face as teenagers and grown women. But if, instead, mothers decided to put aside the disappointment of extra weight and sagging skin, and instead told their daughters, “Yes, it’s true--I am beautiful,” those little girls might have an extra couple of years to soak up the idea that beauty is more than just what they see on a magazine cover. And by the time they entered middle school and high school, maybe they would have at least this one thought in the backs of their minds: “My mother thinks she’s beautiful. And so do I. And if she truly thinks that, maybe beauty isn’t what I’m being told. Maybe it means something much deeper and wider.”
Of course, this presupposes that mothers are discussing beauty with their daughters in all of its fullness--that our beauty is riddled with imperfections and yet we are grateful for the bodies that give breath to our spirits. Perhaps real beauty lies in this idea: that though our bodies are so imperfect, they are our bodies. And because we are not just given bodies to wait out the time until we can fly off and become disembodied souls (thank you Wheaton for helping me understand the heresy of Gnosticism...) we should rejoice in the bodies God has given us. Be they broken, or whole. This doesn’t mean physical beauty is all equal. We have eyes. But physical beauty is much more than our culture leads us to believe. Especially when we look at our bodies through the lens of people who are whole, and not just souls trapped inside flesh. I may not have my neighbor’s hair, but it is my hair. And there is so much beauty in it. These are the kinds of thoughts mothers (and all women) should be examining, and should be unafraid to discuss with their daughters.
But surely, there is room for error here. By telling our daughters that we’re beautiful, they might tend toward believing that physical beauty is more important than it really is. But we all hunger for beauty, even if the topic is taboo. And it’s not taboo...every little girl encounters discussion of beauty, from her first Disney princess movie to her first peek at a magazine in the grocery store aisle. It is better for a mother to claim her own beauty, in a thoughtful and careful way, than for a little girl to encounter it and have no one who is safe to attribute the characteristic to.
Instead of believing that they do not possess beauty and it doesn’t matter, girls should believe that they do possess beauty, and it does matter. Just not in the same way our culture constantly tells us. Beauty as it should be is quiet, and is real, and sometimes carries a few extra pounds around the middle. And daughters need to know that. And another thing: most mothers tell their daughters that they--the daughters--are beautiful. And yet what daughter doesn’t believe her mother is blinded by her motherly love? But if a mother claims her own beauty, and explains how beauty is a mixture of body and soul, healthy and full, perhaps the daughter will begin to believe it when her mother insists that she is beautiful.
None of us thinks we’re beautiful every day. Even the ones who are beautiful by the magazine covers’ standards have bad days. But if we make a point of telling our daughters about true beauty (both the inside and the outside kind) I think we ourselves will have to question if what we say is true or not. There will always be pretty people. But beauty, more often than not, is something we can choose.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard