The Apostate recently reposted this article explaining why, despite her radical feminist politics, she has chosen to post pictures of herself in a bikini. In it, she includes exactly the kind of limited definition of “objectification” that I find I frequently have to overcome in conversations about feminism.
Objectification is not thinking looks matter or admiring someone’s good looks. Objectification is when you assume that the only thing of value in a person is their physical body or the sexual value you find in that body. That’s a dehumanizing thing to do, because although many of us are sexual beings who enjoy our bodies and don’t mind others enjoying our bodies, none of us have sole value ONLY as such. Feminists are sensitive about this because women have been and still often are valued primarily if not solely for their looks or their sexual value.
She’s making this distinction because the post is based on a counter-argument to the old cliché that feminists are ugly, old, can’t get laid, etc. And I agree that it is objectifying when the only thing of value about a person is hir physical body, when you reduce the individual to sexuality, creating an all or nothing of “valuable” or “not” based on whether or not you find hir attractive. But the reason this is a dehumanizing thing to do, and objectifying thing to do, has nothing to do with the fact that it’s sex. Objectification happens because you have made another human being into a tool, defined hir worth based on what you can gain, created a system of valuation in humanity.
To me, it’s not just a problem because women have historically been (and still often are) “valued primarily
if not solely for their looks or their sexual value”. Women have also been objectified as mothers – any number of previous posts I’ve written illustrate this point – or as wives in non-sexual ways, as “defined” only against their relationships rather than through autonomous actions of their own. They’re objectified by always being supporting characters in stories about the accomplishments of their husbands or sons. It has nothing to do with their physical appearance or the assessment of their physical appearance and everything to do with how their existence is contingent, their story is relational, their value is in how they can be used or in how they allow themselves to be used.
Feminists, if I am taking only myself as an example, are sensitive to objectification because we are people and because, historically and currently, we haven’t been taken as such, completely and totally. I’m extremely sensitive to the idea that there are any set of criteria, physical or otherwise, that create or reduce “value” in a human being. When I really think about it, even though I do it all the time, I realize how much I hate talking about people using economic metaphors. It doesn’t line up with the principle of equality when I take that to mean not just social justice, not just equality of opportunity or balancing the scales financially, but that at the core, there is no such thing as being better or worse than another individual, no matter what the sum total result of your actions looks like when compared to theirs. During one of the many stages of my feminist development, I was really insistent on this kind of thinking – guys who were attracted to me had to understand that I’m actually really, really smart, and they had to be interested in that in addition to being interested in my body. Some of them, frankly, just faked it enough to assuage my insecurities, while some of them were perfectly able to see that I had “value” over and above the opportunity for sex. And when you walk in mainly academic circles, both online and off, surrounding yourself with people who are all well above average intelligence, it’s easy to forget that it doesn’t make you more “valuable” than anybody else, either.
It’s objectifying, to me, to talk about “value” in people as though it’s any more complex than just saying “they all have some, and the same amount of it”. Because things that get assessed and assigned different price tags are just that – things. Keeping work and wages (for any work, including sex work) out of the equation, people don’t have price tags, not as people.
And again, this is part of why I see feminism and true equality as a Christian calling – it will seem trite and obvious to say that value comes from God, and that objectifying others means that you are putting yourself in a position to judge, assess and valuate.
I’ve spun into realizing that there are at least four or five other posts I could write emerging from this, and haven’t even gotten to the part where I was going to critique the main argument of the linked article. The short version of that is, no, bikinis can’t be radically feminist. A radical feminist can wear a bikini and post photos of herself in it all over the internet. A radical feminist can be vain and enjoy the attention that comes from having people appreciate her body. I won’t get involved in the kind of “So you think you’re a real feminist” checklist verification and shibboleth creation that I see going around on occasion, but just as people frequently point out that not every “choice” made by a woman is an explicitly feminist choice, not every choice made by a feminist, radical or otherwise, is either feminist or radical (and, in fact, I think discussions that impose these requirements are inherently objectifying, because it reduces a human being with complex interconnecting desires and experiences and beliefs and feelings to the mere label “feminist” and assumes that all her actions have now been programmed through the “feminist-robot” settings instead of through her subjectivity). I can especially see the relevance of the bikini-statement to this woman given her point about the attempts to completely desexualize Muslim women, but I think the argument that she’s using to counter her main point against anti-feminists is an extremely poor one, because it still buys in to the terms they’ve defined. Dichotomies of attractive vs. not, good girl vs. bad, valuable vs. not. I hate seeing this “simple” counterpoint against the argument for the more obvious reason, however: what if I am ugly? What if I’m old? What if I’m hairy and fat and the least conventionally attractive person you’ll ever meet? That should only matter to you if our interaction is based on whether or not we’re going to have sex. This interaction we’re having right here, over the internet, is based on something else entirely, and if all you want to know about is what I look like before you will be able to assess the quality of this interaction, then I have no interest in this conversation anyway. Feminists who use the “but I’m not ugly, so you should listen to me” point (much as it’s designed just to get over the caricature) really need to think about what they’re doing to the argument of a feminist who is less conventionally attractive making the exact same political arguments but without the benefit of the bikini photo to back her up.