A few years ago, there was an upheaval in the media about the new girlfriend of a famous sportsman. The reason for her vilification in the press was simply that she wasn’t good looking enough – because, after all, the sportsman in question was rich and famous and ‘could do so much better’. In fact, she was extremely attractive, but just not traffic-stoppingly beautiful enough to pacify her detractors. Not for a moment did anyone consider her character, her intelligence, her sense of humour, the values the two might share or the foundation of life goals that they might have had in common. It was just based on her appearance – and in the eyes of the media, she didn’t make the grade. A similar standard is almost never applied to men, which is why the array of beautiful wives and girlfriends associated with Donald Trump or Hugh Hefner, for example, are never questioned as to their choice. That’s considered to be how the world works: rich and famous men = beautiful women as the reward.
We’ve completed the first decade of the 21st Century and the feminist movement is accelerating into its third wave, and yet it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. There has been some progress in the way that women are viewed and view themselves. This shift is based on the reality that women now comprise the greatest talent pool in the world and are largely better educated than men, that they control about 75% of the global spend, and that the wealth in the hands of women is increasing dramatically. But, in other ways, the perception of women has remained static or has even gone backwards.
Perhaps the best way to assess our current situation would be to look at the media, particularly the advertising industry, which is where most of us receive and are shaped by social messages. The media industry remains staggeringly under the control of a single demographic – men – which largely explains why the social changes and education we need for progress are slow to be achieved.
How far have we actually come?
In the 1950’s the media institutionalized sexism – wives were completely controlled and influenced by their husbands. Most references to women revolved around the kitchen and creating a beautiful home, and products designed for women were marketed as being necessary if they wanted to impress these husbands. It was in 1963 that Betty Frieden (The Feminine Mystique) started to urge women to seek new roles and responsibilities. She encouraged women to find their own personal and professional identities, rather than being defined by the outside, male-dominated society. It started the second wave of feminism, and certainly great gains have been made, but still the tyranny of the media is holding women hostage. While the image of the Stepford Wife is now laughable to many and the over-riding message to women is to find their own identity, there persists an even greater focus on being beautiful at the same time. Looking great and being desirable to men is still portrayed as your fast-forward to a happy and successful life.
What is the difference between being objective and objectification?
There have been many studies on how and why women have been so firmly objectified by men. Clearly, women’s object-like status is not a natural fact, but rather a consequence of gender inequality. In structuring our world in such a way as to accommodate this ‘allegedly natural fact’ about women, we sustain the existing situation of gender imbalance. Once women have been cast in the role of being submissive and deferential by nature, a gender hierarchy is in place and this then dictates social arrangements.
Researcher, Sally Haslanger, suggests that there are four conditions necessary for a person to objectify another. She sets these steps out as follows when it comes to women’s sexual objectification by men:
- Men view and treat women as objects of male sexual desire;
- Men desire women to be submissive and object-like and force them to submit;
- Men believe that women are in fact submissive and object-like;
- Men believe that women are in fact submissive and object-like by nature.
In this case, instead of men arranging their beliefs to fit the world, the world arranges itself to fit the beliefs of men. This is objectification. The right way to arrange thinking is for our beliefs to fit the reality of the world – this is being objective. Objectification, then, is a process in which the social world comes to be shaped by desire and belief. When it comes to the objectification of women, if men desire women to be submissive and object-like, they use their power to try to force women to conform. And when men control the media, this powerful tool is used to perpetuate gender inequality and viewing women as objects.
How is this objectification of women still manifesting in society?
Currently in society, instead of beauty losing its dominance as an important factor in judging a woman, it seems that this measure is even more important than before. Women are thus still excessively preoccupied with their appearance, and Sandra Bartky and Susan Bordo argue, in their studies, that this obsession has caused women to be even further objectified. Certainly, women in society are more associated with their bodies than men are. “To a much greater extent than men, they are valued for how they look, and so are under constant pressure to correct their bodies and appearance to gain social acceptability. By conforming to this behaviour, women are perpetuating objectification by treating themselves as things to be decorated and gazed upon.” Objectifying a person is dangerous, because anyone being treated as an object is not being regarded as a full human being.
Perpetuation of beauty as the standard
Let’s take a look at current society norms that prevail. The first aspect would be the continuation of beauty pageants which are largely for women, starting really early with competitions for young girls. From toddler stage girls are taught that their looks are part of a contest, and that it’s not just natural beauty that is being judged either. For example, when some of the children lost baby teeth that had not been replaced by pageant time, their parents fitted them with false teeth. When a girl’s hair was too short to curl like Barbie’s, fake additions were fitted. According to author, Hilary Levey, many moms think competition is healthy. “My daughter looks like Barbie,” one said. “I tell her to exploit it. This is your life; you take what you have and run with it.”
John Oliver recently did a hilarious exposé on the Miss America pageant entitled: “Why is this still a thing?” He called the pageant “the weirdest annual event on television”, highlighting how bizarre it was to have the compère, a fully-dressed man, standing in front of a line of scantily-clad women, waiting to be judged like some modern-day harem. Beauty pageants of 50 to 60 years ago were actually based on a point system – for example, 5 points for the construction of the head, 3 points for the torso and 2 for the legs etc. Contestants were subjected to tape measuring to compare their design with the required metrics. This sounds absurd, but the premise of measuring beauty in these pageants hasn’t changed that much.
And, clearly, the Miss America pageant is aware of how outdated and politically incorrect the programme is, which is why they are now window-dressing it as: ‘the largest scholarship programme for women in the world’. What this really highlights is that they know they have something to be ashamed of, needing to cover this with promises of academic improvement. Of course, the only ones able to qualify for these bursaries would need to be beautiful, unmarried, and not ever having been pregnant. To quote Oliver: “Most of the women are actually damn impressive, which is all the more reason why pageants like these are so insulting. They mock the women’s intelligence by asking impossible questions [such as solving ISIS and the intricacies of hostage negotiation] with only 20 seconds to answer. Then they parade them around in swimsuits because the most important aspect of a scholarship for female role models is sexiness in a bikini, right?” His conclusion, accurately, is that the pageant should call itself what it is – a scantily-clad runway show that peddles voyeuristic perversion.
In Europe, the situation is no better, although France may soon ban beauty contests for children younger than 16. As the minister who proposed the ban stated: “Children are increasingly being presented with hyper-sexualised images of themselves or transformed into miniature adults whose appearance signals sexual availability.” In other words, women are going to be objectified enough anyway by society, but let’s at least delay the process until they reach adulthood. Even more telling is the comment from a politician who has been trying to ban ‘mini-miss’ competitions since 2011. As she stated: “When I asked an organizer why there were no mini-boy contests, he replied that boys would not lower themselves like that.”
Italians, however, seem to have no such qualms when it comes to pressuring women to achieve an acceptable standard of beauty. There’s even a national beauty contest for ladies “whose looks owe as much to the scalpel as Mother Nature”. Many Italian health experts, however, fear the nation’s obsession with cosmetic correction is getting out of control. The popularity of cosmetic surgery is rising sharply, even among teenagers, who feel pressured to conform to old stereotypes. In 2009, the Italian health ministry was forced to ban breast enhancement in girls under 18 and research has showed that 14 per cent of 16- and 17-year-old Italian girls said they would undergo breast enhancement surgery and 30 per cent reported feeling dissatisfied with their bodies. Are they really surprised? When the country has competitions that award Miss Rhinoplasty, Miss Silicone, Miss Botox and even Miss Chemical Peel?
The role of the media – including the rise of social media
This powerful vehicle continues to do women a disservice. In the main, objectification of women and holding up the essential standard of beauty is more prevalent than ever before. What is most insidious is the creation of photoshopping, which means that the images of beauty that we’re being presented with are often not realistic at all. A top model who was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey recently bemoaned the fact that even she didn’t look as good as her media self. She suffered from low self-esteem because the people she met were disappointed that she didn’t have the tiny waist, the perfect skin or the shining eyes that her pictures suggested.
Beauty is still clearly touted as the ultimate prize. Twitter and Instagram are flooded with air-brushed pictures of celebrities such as Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian – images that women around the world pore over and aspire to. Any enhancement to pictures contributes to a distorted and unnatural perception of what beauty is. Men believe that the women on social media and in adverts are what real women are supposed to look like. Studies have also demonstrated that women exposed constantly to pictures of beautiful women (many photoshopped) have lower self-esteem than those looking at natural and normal women. As summed up by Glynis Mackenzie in Reclaiming Beauty – Look like your True Self : “The root of much low self-esteem and self-criticism [amongst women] is the current definition of conventional beauty which is so narrow and limited that most women feel marginalised and excluded. The result of this is often a lifelong struggle of trying to attain an unrealistic and almost impossible standard of ‘beauty’. This is disheartening and debilitating as well as being completely unproductive.”
Reality TV is also a prime offender, focusing as it does on characters who are usually rich, famous and cosmetically altered. It was initially quite disconcerting to witness the array of expressionless faces in these shows, until it became apparent that so many were frozen with chemicals. Many young girls around the world (and an increasing number of boys) now aspire simply ‘to be famous’, encouraged by their television diets of the lifestyles of reality stars (often extremely dysfunctional lives too). They follow these lives passionately and want to emulate every detail – including the clothing that becomes ever-more provocative. Surprisingly, many of these female ‘role-models’ are dubbed as being empowering to women – but encouraging them to dress in tight, skimpy or see-through clothing, address all their physical flaws with plastic surgery, and to stave off any hint of ageing with a vengeance doesn’t seem to be so much empowering as heightening the severe objectification that already exists.
On a positive note, however, some advertising execs have started to adjust to the growing intellectual and economic power of women, and the increasing dissatisfaction with a diet of unnatural and ‘improved’ images of female beauty. We’ve come a long way from the “FlyMe” airline ads of the 70’s, which had the tagline of “We really move our tail for you”. Many of the current role models of beauty are ‘booty-licious’ which is at least more realistic than the ‘heroin chic’ of a waiflike Kate Moss in the 90’s. But we need to look behind the adverts to see whether they are genuinely empowering, or whether it’s yet another ploy to sell their products. For example, people have been delighted by the Dove adverts which portray more natural, untouched images of women and girls. But the parent company, Unilever, continues with heavily sexist ads to sell their products to men. Even their Dove adverts boil down to the fact that when you’re more confident, you ‘feel beautiful’. As Rikki Rogers writes about the Pantene ads, which punt the ‘Not Sorry’ script of women not apologizing for their opinions and strengths, the punchline is still that: “When you’re strong on the inside, you shine on the outside. And that’s beautiful!”
Granted, any inference to the ‘inner’ or to confidence might be a better definition of beauty, but perhaps it’s a measure we should do away with altogether. Rogers explains that a worldwide survey revealed that only 4% of women would describe themselves as beautiful. As she suggested, how about asking them instead whether they are smart, balanced, empowered, strong or self-assured? Why even bring beauty into the equation at all?
Ironically, the human condition is programmed to see and appreciate beauty. We are moved by a glorious sunset, a magnificent piece of art, an exquisite musical composition. It’s just that human beings, women in particular, are so much more than objects to be valued exclusively for their beauty. Currently it’s clear that good looking people tend to make more money and get special attention from teachers, employers and the legal system. We need to work on seeing more of women than their physical outer, and release them from the current trend where a surveyed group spent up to a third of their incomes on looking good. We have to stop equating beauty with the pursuit of happiness and confidence, and we need to start this with young girls – by not telling them constantly how beautiful they are, but focusing rather on other qualities and attributes to build their self-esteem. For as long as a woman’s appearance continues to be seen as a critical component of her strength and authority it will be very hard to fix gender inequality. Empowerment will remain a distant goal while objectification continues to reign supreme. The sooner we can achieve some gender balance in the media and advertising industry the better. Women, after all, account for about 75% of consumer spending worldwide – women are the new market, and producing the kind of ads featured in this article (which verge on pornography in some cases) is definitely not attracting female buyers.
I like to think that we can move towards a time when a woman will not be slated in the press for being less than the perfect beauty the media thinks a famous man deserves. Perhaps, one day, we might even make Oscar Wilde’s quip completely untrue that : “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”