Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The biology of objectification

NSFW NOTICE: This post contains medical diagrams of willies and vajayjays. People who are in a location where they cannot safely giggle like little schoolchildren at these naughty pictures should probably hold off reading for now.

Last week I decided, more or less on a whim, to reactivate my old Twitter account. This is not a decision to be taken lightly when one lives in China, land of annoyingly blocked internet, and means that I now spend an unreasonable amount of time on an artificially slow connection, writing topical insights on my life and then desperately clicking the “tweet” button over and over whilst the website tells me “it did something wrong” before finally putting them up ten minutes later. Ah well. A woman’s got to have a hobby, no?

Interestingly, it has also put me more in touch with some of the big issues in UK feminism today than I was when I was actually back in the country last month. See, when I plugged back into the twit-o-sphere, I discovered that most of the feeds I follow are either of Oxford radicals or joke versions of Nick Clegg, both of which continue to be very relevant to my life in a nostalgic way but which I didn’t really want to be the sum total of my Twitter news. So I went off to find some more topical things to follow, and ended up tuning in to two accounts in particular: the Everyday Sexism Project, and the No MorePage 3 Campaign.

I imagine the vast majority of my readership already knows what these two things are, but let me explain for the benefit of the remainder. The Everyday Sexism Project, in its own words, “exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day-to-day basis”. This covers everything from violent criminal offences and big institutionalised inequalities in areas like sport to the waiter in Pret who stared openly at your breasts whilst making your coffee or the plumber who refused to talk to you until “your husband gets home”. The idea is to delegitimize a lot of the silencing that goes on when sexism is discussed, particularly on the internet- the reams of “that happens to men too!” or “you need to have thicker skin!” or “that was just a compliment!”-  by pointing out the sheer volume of nonsense that goes into being female every day. It’s an interesting read, and judging by some of the publicity, it’s having the right effect.

The No More Page 3 campaign is aimed at tackling just one of these everyday sexisms- namely, the 47 year tradition of Britain’s most popular tabloid, the Sun, which puts a topless young woman (sorry, “girl”) on page 3 (or occasionally elsewhere) for… what purpose exactly? To remind the world that boobs still exist and are regularly attached to “girls” (women) with nice hair and Sexy eyes. And because men like boobs, and men like newspapers, and it’s always been that way, right? The feature apparently tries to justify its inclusion in a newspaper by featuring a little text box called “news in briefs”, where the topless woman (“girl”) is quoted as saying something about a topical issue in today’s news- except the joke is that what she says is always far too erudite and highbrow to have come from the mouth of a topless “girl”. Because the only thing stupider than a thing with boobs is a thing that we tricked into letting us see its boobs. Silly thing.

Why does this matter? I do wonder, for example, how many of the 36,000-odd signatures that No More Page 3 has right now are actual Sun readers trying to change their favourite newspaper. The phrase “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” has been bandied about (and well-discussed) elsewhere, and although it’s a completely inadequate response, I strongly suspect that the people swayed by this campaign are mainly those who have already been voting with their wallets against the Sun for quite some time. And I for one am not against the existence of boobies in entertainment, or any people in any state of undress for that matter!* The “girls” of Page 3 know what they’re signing themselves up for, and must know that jokes are made at their expense, so surely they don’t need our big moral guiding hand telling them what to do. And Cosmopolitan magazine, may it live a thousand years, has a completely naked man inside every month! Covering up the really naughty bits, of course, but sometimes not very well. So why should we care what is going on in this one particular newspaper?

To answer that question, I want to take you back to school sex education. In my case, we did sex education twice in secondary school. The second time was in year 9 when our already worldly class of 14-year-old British state school kids asked our rather old, Daily Mail reading “Personal Development” teacher to answer our sex-related questions for a term, and then proceeded to harangue her about double fisting. The first was back in Year 7 biology class, when we learned biology. Sounds very objective, right?

Here is what Year 7 biology looks like if you’re a boy:

Now, I have never been male, so I can’t speak with any authority on how a bisected man-willy might affect a 12-year-old boy. But, despite the adult(?) proportions and the weird squiggly bits drawn all over it, this appears to include a reasonable representation of what most males can personally find in their undies. And it has a biological action associated with it, an active purpose- again, not one that the vast majority of 12-year-olds can relate to, but one which most of them already know can be simulated in other ways.

Now here’s what year seven biology tells girls is important:

It’s the uterus. What a great and noble piece of equipment that is, the very origin of the human race. And where is this great and noble piece of equipment? Oh, it’s inside of me, where I will never ever see it except in grainy ultrasound scans of my future baby (which I will have, to make this great and noble organ inside me worthwhile) or if I get in a really bad swordfight (which I won’t, because I’m a girl and swordfights aren’t girly). And what can I do with it? Well, based on what I learned in year 7 biology class, I can let a man put his penis in the bit at the bottom, then sometimes a baby will grow in it and come out of it.. Of course, there’s also whispered playground talk about these naughty things called dildos, but I put it to you that a 12-year-old girl with a dildo is a fair bit rarer than a 12-year-old boy with a pair of hands. There’s also a general sense that girls can also use their hands, but in my school that was pretty quickly appropriated by creepy-before-their-time boys who went around talking about “fingering”, probably a good decade before they actually got anywhere near a real vagina. But in general, the good things that are supposed to happen to this version of female anatomy happen to it, not with it.

Here, by the way, is what a medical picture of a vulva looks like. I saw one of these for the first time about eighteen months ago, when H. from the Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness inspired me to get a copy of “OurBodies Ourselves.” It’s not really relevant to this blog post but hey, I thought I’d share the vulva love.

You will probably be wondering at this point what on earth all of this has to do with Page 3 girls, who are not getting their uteri or their penes (hey, let’s not make assumptions!) out for Sun readers. It’s rather simple, really: from that moment in Year 7 when girls are told their sexuality rests in their uteruses and not their vulvas, women’s bodies become Someone Else’s. Sex, that most important function of the human animal, is for women about being evaluated as attractive enough that somebody will eventually put a baby in that womb. And, importantly, you cannot evaluate yourself. You can’t evaluate your own uterus, because it’s inside of you. You can’t evaluate your own vulva, because there is nothing to compare it to. And you can’t evaluate your own body, because that is the job of people who might put babies inside you. From there, it’s a depressingly easy step to the world we live in: where there exist, if not actual objective standards for female beauty, at least some very pervasive cultural myths about their existence and what they might be.

And that’s where Page 3, and all it represents, comes in. A topless woman can be in a newspaper because topless women can be objectively considered worthy of sexual evaluation, independent of anything else about them as a person. Cosmo’s men, on the other hand, appear in a magazine specifically for heterosexual women, are famous in their own right anyway, and are often presented with at least some sort of prop related to them as a person- usually to cover the crown jewels with. Across the world, pictures of anonymous pale women in various states of undress sell pretty much every consumer product imaginable, to both men and other women. It’s why this breast cancer campaign, aimed at both genders but primarily at women, can be called “Coppafeel”- because breasts are objectively sexy, so touching your own boob is just as sexy as somebody else touching it. Yes, groping one’s own boobs can be a very gratifying experience, but sorry, excited male readers, it’s not objectively sexy. And certainly not sexy enough for me to want to refer to it in dirty old man language. Oi, love, nice tits! Let’s cop a feel then, eh? No.

And as if the media weren’t bad enough, this all bleeds over, into the world where people are just being normal people and not trying to sell things using naked ladies. You see this so much in the Everyday Sexism page- the apparent progression, in some men’s minds, from “I am attracted to women” to “I have a right to evaluate women’s bodies” to “I have a duty to evaluate women’s bodies and tell them all about it”. It’s the place where wolf whistling comes from, and why some people still apparently can’t see it as anything other than a nice compliment- they just told you that you are worthy of being impregnated, what’s so wrong with that? Every day, everywhere, women are subjected to male commentary about how they look and how they make said men feel, as if it has any bearing whatsoever on our lives, and because of the way we have been brought up to evaluate ourselves, it does take on meaning. For most women**, attractiveness is about 1) evaluation by [male] strangers and 2) self-evaluation compared to objectively sexy women in pictures, from the perceived perspective of [male] strangers, rather than 3) having a good look at yourself in the mirror and going “Oh alright then”, or even 4) having somebody who is subjectively attracted to you as an actual human being go “you is well fit, let’s be individuals together”. Yes, women and men get around the constant awful messages every day in order to have non-awful relationships with each other, but it certainly doesn’t make it any easier! It is, as we feminists say, the Male Gaze, and it’s really not necessary or helpful to anybody’s life.

I want to finish up with the saddest comment I read on the Everyday Sexism Project, from somebody called Ruby:
“Told I look more feminine now I'm seriously ill and lost weight. 'Girls look better frail'. At least I'll die as a lady!”
The culture that Page 3 represents causes this, and it’s not right. If you love boobs, please also consider loving the people they are attached to. Go sign the damn petition.


*Although being a fan of pornography and being a fan of the pornography industry are very different things. I spend a lot of time on the parts of the internet that are full of young female nerds drawing pictures and writing smutty stories about fictional people shagging, and despite the fact the people are often not even human I think they’re probably more realistic than a lot of the “sex” that goes on over in Real Person Pornland.

** And I don’t doubt for many men as well, although culture doesn’t train us to see male worth or sexuality as intrinsically based on attractiveness in the same way.

1 comment:

  1. Can't believe no one has commented!!! Everyone should read this. Adrienne Joy you should be very, very proud. Thank you so much for writing this. I would like to know how you can respond to the 'it is biologically and evolutionary predetermined that men will objectify women and this is okay' argument (because it is wrong - as the comments on ?prove?) we need to be able to use counter-arguments to bolster this argument and make change - we need to be holistic in order to convince as many as we can. This is SUCH an important subject. Being objectified and the ramifications of objectification have had an immense negative impact on my life and many others I am sure. People underestimate the psychological damage they cannot actively perceive - that is not represented in scales and linked somehow to the economy. Objectification inhibits a person - it inhibited me to the extent that I felt so depressed I could not physically move - HOW IS THIS NOT IMPORTANT? I ask those who underestimate the effects of objectification? You say there are bigger problems in the world. But by ignoring those that lie seething beneath the surface how can those who are inhibited contribute towards change in the 'bigger problems.' We need to start from the bottom and work our way up. Self-worth is imperative to action.