Objecting to Objectification

by Shaker koach

[Content Note: Objectification.]

I came out as a lesbian in college. One day in class, I was completely distracted by the woman next to me: She was idly twirling her foot around, swinging her clunky sandal from her nicely tanned foot with bright red nail polish. I was mesmerized. And suddenly I realized…I like women! I love their bodies! I love looking at them! It was a revelation to me, and as I gradually absorbed the idea, parts of my past suddenly started to make sense. This strange sense of unease I'd had for most of my life around other women—it was attraction. The unnamable discomfort I'd been feeling for years was lust.

For example, I played sports throughout my adolescence, and I always felt uncomfortable in the women's locker room. Now I saw that it wasn't the same sort of discomfort that most other kids felt. Instead, I was uncomfortable because there was all this female flesh around, all these lovely body parts that I wanted to look at. The idea that someone might look at me in some stage of undress was uncomfortable to me only because it turned me on. A few years ago Liss wrote about her high school friendship with another girl, and, wondering what made her different, wondered if she was attracted to this girl. I had several friendships like that throughout middle and high school, but it's only with the benefit of hindsight that I was able to see that I was attracted to several of my female friends. Sure, I thought they were smart, kind, and witty, but I also desired them.

Accepting my identity as a lesbian meant accepting that I was attracted to women, that I found (and find) women's bodies lovely and fascinating and marvelous. When I looked at a beautiful actress, I was checking out her hips, her ass, her breasts, her thighs, her shoulders, her jawline, all the breathtaking curves and angles that exist on a woman's (on every woman's) body. Accepting my identityǂ as a lesbian meant, at least in part, accepting that I lusted after these very parts.

Gradually I became more explicit and open about my desire for women and their lovely bodies. When a woman with a great, large ass walked by, I'd turn to watch her go. When my waitress had nice cleavage, I checked her out. (Yes, there was a time when I might have enjoyed National Cleavage Day, because I enjoyed letting a furtive glance at cleavage turn into a lingering one, even though I would have been and still am opposed to giving social sanction to men doing the same.) I admired feet, arms, hips, faces, eyes, everything. What can I say? I dig women, and every woman has something unique, something beautiful, something worth a second glance or an extended gaze. I didn't discriminate: I loved fat, thin, and in-between bodies, tall and short bodies, bodies of all colors, disabled and temporarily abled bodies, butch, feminine, queer, and trans* bodies, covered and uncovered bodies.

Fast forward a few more years, and I'm walking across campus on a beautiful spring day with one of my best, straight, female friends. She said something about all the young women out exercising in their sports bras and tiny shorts, how it motivated her to start exercising. I chuckled lasciviously and said I had very different thoughts when I looked at the women sweating in their skimpy clothes, then waggled my eyebrows suggestively. She stopped in her tracks and looked at me in surprise. She said, "You only see them as bodies to ogle?"

It was my turn to stop in my tracks. I saw, suddenly, that my appreciation of women had become demeaning. Though I was a lesbian, I was looking at other women with The Male Gaze. I was objectifying them. I realized a lesbian reducing a woman to a nice ass was no different to the woman being objectified than a man doing so.

To be clear: There's nothing wrong with noticing. To be attracted to other people means one will experience attraction. But one can be attracted without objectifying.

This is pretty hard to admit. I'm a feminist and I was before I knew the word; I wholeheartedly and as continually as possible support women in any way I can. I'm in a field where most lower-level positions are filled by female people and most senior- and academic- level positions are filled by male people, so the empowerment, encouragement, and non-objectification of women is personal as well as political and philosophical for me. In the past, I've pointed out problematic male objectification of women to my father, brothers, and male friends, to try to sway their behavior and thoughts. I respect and honor women and I'd never objectify them—so I thought.

This has been hard for me to untangle and I'm not all the way there. My recognition of my "homosexual tendencies" has been tied up in recognizing my desire for women and their bodies. Yet I know there are other things that draw me to women, that turn me on, that keep me fascinated. For example, I love thinking about and talking about the ways that different women have found to respond to societal expectations about roles, dress, and behavior. Some women embrace these expectations, some reluctantly accept them, some challenge them, some subvert them, some overturn them, or some combination thereof, and all of these individual, varied responses intrigue me. I love all the uses to which different women have put their intellectual capabilities or their passion or their strength. I think I celebrate womanhood in its broadest, most diverse, least-monolithic sense.

And yet. When I'm looking at a woman and reducing her to a nice ass or great breasts, I'm not doing that. I'm treating women as one class, with various physical attributes that are more or less pleasing to my particular eye.

Being consistent and true to my feminism has meant that I have to call myself out when I'm objectifying women. If I repudiate men doing that (and I do), then I need to repudiate women doing it as well. Objectification is objectification. Reducing anyone to a body part is offensive and demeaning. Reading the Today in Disembodied Things series and this post have helped me think through this and reaffirm my objection to objectification. If I'm admiring a sexy pair of legs, for example, but I stop there, without considering the woman as a whole, without wondering about her personality, what drives her, her dreams, what makes her laugh, well, I'm pretty close to viewing her as a passive object there for my viewing pleasure. So I try to remind myself that behind every attractive physical attribute lies a person—a person who is not a passive receptacle for my gaze, but who deserves respect and consideration.


ǂ This acceptance wasn't easy for me, because I grew up in a Midwestern conservative Christian household where sexuality and lust were forbidden topics; the story of how I did eventually accept and embrace my sexuality is long, winding, and not the topic of this post. Suffice to say, I have gotten to the point where I am comfortable, happy, and proud to be a lesbian.

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