It’s always interesting how insightful or enlightening realizations can originate from the most mundane settings. I was catching up with an old school friend of mine, updating each other about the most unspectacular aspects of our lives. I mentioned that I was now attending Vassar College, to which he replied, “Oh is it true what they say about Vassar?” I had a hunch about what he was referring to, but I decided to ask him what he had heard about Vassar instead. “I’ve heard that your school preaches lesbian ideology, like women refusing to shave their legs and stuff.”
If this conversation had occurred face-to-face I would have gotten up and left at that moment; I was pretty appalled. Needless to say, our once innocuous conversation ended abruptly after that. What does lesbian ideology even mean? I had assumed he was referring to feminism, but what does a gay woman have to do with female rights? And refusing to shave their legs? He portrayed it as though women should be obligated to maintain in a state of hairlessness and not doing so demonstrated disobedience and defiance of what is ‘natural.’
His idiocy, which first provoked a mere sense of annoyance and eye-rolling, soon triggered a much larger realization: the association between women and objects of beauty (or sexual objectification) and just how deeply engrained it is in our society. Sexual objectification involves serving or fulfilling another’s sexual pleasures, where the sexual object is subordinate and acted upon instead of being the actor. We see this concept applied to people—96% of whom are women (TED talks, “The Sexy Lie”, 01.20.2013)—and we’re seeing more of it than ever before. Since the 1980s, there have been significant increases in the sexual objectification of women in TV, magazines, music videos, advertisements, etc., catering to both men and women.
Men find these portrayals of women attractive, because it makes them the sexual subjects, the actors that are in command and control. Women find these scantily-clad, objectified, beautiful female models appealing, because they associate physical attractiveness—a concept that has been largely governed by men—with the value of a person. If we women look a certain way, we will somehow become more valuable, more supposedly ideal. And we do become more ideal.
We become ideal subordinates, commodities, objects. Society has trained women so successfully in viewing our bodies as projects to be perpetually improved upon for the liking of men that we truly believe spending all that time, money, and effort on cosmetics, hair, skin, clothes and nails is actually empowering. We live in a society where women would be far, far more offended if someone called them ugly than if they were seen as incompetent, boring or uninteresting.
We have women telling themselves that they put on pounds of makeup and take an hour just to find an outfit for themselves, because somehow, some way, it’s supposed to be a gateway to increasing self-worth.
Yet decorating our physical bodies is in no way, shape, or form for ourselves. The way you dress on a Sunday, alone in your dorm and doing your homework, is how you look for yourself. And I can almost guarantee your ‘homework day look’ did not involve extensive primping and priming. Instead, we see male attention as some sort of precious, finite resource, where competition with other women is necessary to obtain as much it as possible, since it is through male approval and attention that we derive our false sense of value and worth.
When another woman is viewed as more highly-valued sex object, it makes other women feel bad about themselves. The pressure associated with trying to become the perfect sexualized subordinate has resulted in depression, eating disorders, reduced cognitive ability, noticeably lower GPA, and more (TED talks, “The Sexy Lie”, 01.20.2013).
This is clearly an issue. When a sizable portion of our population is preoccupied with their physical appearance, we lose this group’s ideas for growth, innovations for change and assistance for a brighter future. When women continually have to compare themselves with unrealistic perceptions of how a woman should be, they lose confidence in themselves and their ability to speak their minds. And if they deviate from the narrow confines of what is ‘womanly,’ they are stripped of their femininity or deemed as crazy or bitchy.
For example, women who are “too muscular” are seen as unfeminine; Celebrities, like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears, who have/had diverged from their perfectly-primped and well-behaved selves are immediately branded as crazy; and virtually any woman who is known to exert power and control is portrayed as a bitch.
The average woman is therefore constrained and uncertain of herself; she lives in a world where she almost feels apologetic when she speaks out loud, where she constantly uses “you know?” or “right?” in her sentences because she feels like she needs reassurance from others to carry forth, and where she will often become passive because she lacks the confidence to feel comfortable around confrontation and possible judgment from her peers. Instead of treating this like the socially-constructed concern that it is, our patriarchal society has explained these behaviors as merely ‘natural’ to women; they are inherently less assertive, competitive, etc., making people doubt that there is even a problem to fix.
But there is a problem—a deeply-engrained, self-perpetuating problem—that needs to be destroyed. Right now, mainstream campaigns are advocating ideas like “confidence is sexy” and “you’re beautiful in the skin you’re in.” While these notions are seemingly positive, they both still rest of the false perception that women ought to be sexy and beautiful to begin with. It further perpetuates that tie between being aesthetically pleasing and being valuable.
A breaking of this association needs to occur, and it involves much more than telling women is simply not care what other people think. Destroying this paradigm will take time and the effort of both sexes. There probably is no one solution but we can start by doing this: The next time you want to compliment a woman, don’t call her beautiful. Commend her on the things she has done, said, or achieved. Hopefully, with time, we women will stop focusing on what we look like and start focusing on what we can accomplish.
—Angela Della Croce ’15 is an economics major.