“With the laying aside of her clothes, a woman lays aside the respect that is hers!”
–Gyges, Herodotus’ History.
“Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature…”
–Lizzy Bennet, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
When people say “don’t objectify yourself,” what they usually mean is, “don’t make it so other people objectify you.”
This needs to be said over and over: you cannot make anyone objectify you, or help them objectify you, or collude in their objectification of you. You cannot make people decide to treat you as nothing more than a sexual object, or act as if your sexual body renders you inhuman. You are very obviously human. This is something everyone can figure out without help from you.
And on the off chance I have readers younger than me: if someone says to you “you need to do this so I can stop hurting you,” run, or at least confide immediately in a trusted authority figure. This is abuser-speak, and I can’t tell you how furious it makes me that young Catholic girls are so often exhorted with rhetoric that normalizes abusive patterns.
You can’t objectify yourself for others. You can, however, objectify yourself for yourself: you can act as though the most important purpose in your own life is sexual appeal.
Most young girls grow up listening to the same advice from opposite ends of the spectrum. Popular culture says “Look in the mirror! Are you sexy enough? Will boys like you like that? Should your heels be a little higher? What would you think if your were a boy looking at you?” The cult of modesty says “Are you too sexy? How are you presenting yourself?What does this say about you? Will boys be aroused by this? What would you think if you were a boy looking at you?”
Only when these issues are settled do questions of functionality, aesthetics, propriety, and preference, questions that presuppose contexts and interests for women outside their sexual attractions, receive attention.
In both cases, a woman is encouraged to conceive of herself primarily as the object of a gaze; usually, a sexual gaze.* Her role is not the citizen and public actor with both agendas of her own and the capacity to engage sexually, but the passive stimulant and receptacle for the desire of others. Sexual attractiveness (attractiveness, not desire), its presence or absence, is the most pertinent quality of her public person, and if she knows what’s good for her she will try either to transcend or exploit her essentially object character .
On the one hand, because of their unique identities as sex objects women bear both a particular moral responsibility to “use their beauty” well and wisely, and a particular danger of exposing too much desirable flesh—thereby lifting the curtain on their passive, sexualized natures and forfeiting the respect they might otherwise have received. Their clothes should be chosen carefully with these realities in mind. On the other hand, women presumably do not even want to transcend their inferior nature: sexual desire from others constitutes a woman’s happiness as well as purpose, and so her clothes should be carefully chosen with the sole aim of maximizing it. Both sides tend to employ a heavily religious, Pelagian tone: we can overcome our sexiness and our fat rolls if we try hard enough.
The pressure is constant, insidious, and pervasive. Otherwise women wouldn’t buy swimsuits they can’t swim in, or skirts that must be constantly arranged and re-arranged just so; they wouldn’t convince themselves and others that five inches of covered midriff at the beach is the great dividing line that separates girls with dignity and self-worth from those without.
You can objectify** yourself by wearing clothes that don’t let you do any the things you want to or should do, with freedom and vigor, except be looked at; by standing in front of a mirror everyday wondering if your outfit is TOO SEXY or NOT SEXY ENOUGH. You can listen to people who say that your dignity rises and falls in an inverse relation to your hemline. You can buy clothes that make you miserable wearing them because you have to spend the entire party aware of and tugging at said hemline and shoes that create permanent aches in your feet, because beauty is pain.
The goal isn’t to find a perfect amount of sexual attractiveness, such that its presence is pleasant but not degrading, and implying that this mythical amount exists is how the modesty-as-dignity-crowd objectifies woman. The goal is to avoid pursuing or glorifying sexual attractiveness at the expense of every other human consideration: comfort, freedom, simplicity, adherence to the current mostly-arbitrary-but-still-important rules of propriety.
Deprogramming isn’t easy, especially because everyone is spewing the same lie dressed up differently. Here’s the list I’ve cobbled together ad-hoc over the years to replace the Is this modest/Is this hot Janus when buying clothes or picking out an outfit.
-Is this right for what I am going to do? Can I walk freely, sit comfortably, swim, run, dance, cook, whatever I’m doing? Can I put this on and forget that I’m wearing it, or does it require constant attention? Does it force me to preoccupy myself with my body and the gaze of others all the damn time?
-Does its attraction depend on misogyny? (More on this later)
-Is it contextually appropriate? Is it formal enough? Am I going to church, the beach, a party, work?
-Does it conform to a reasonable degree and to the best of my judgement (because this is mostly not a hard and fast metric) with the customs and norms regarding dress, public-private distinctions, etc. of this time and place?
-Is it aesthetically pleasing? Am I sexually attractive in it? Do I actually like it and feel happy wearing it?
-Is it well made and durable? Does it fill a real need in my closet?
And finally, most importantly, IS IT A LEATHER SKIRT OR DOES IT HAVE SEQUINS? BECAUSE YES.
*Aesthetic objectification, for instance, is much less common.
**It’s important to remember that not everyone who transgresses some sartorial line is necessarily sexually objectifying herself. A woman whose jeans constantly expose her underwear may be overvaluing sexual attention, or she might be lazy, or she might have decided the dictates of youth culture are the customs she want to obey, or she might be trying to shock and offend you. These aren’t good things, but they’re not sexual objectification, because women can do things for reasons that don’t involve sex!