How to Sexually Objectify Yourself (But Not in the Way You Think)

“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?


*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!

Let’s Also Stop Objectifying Women

“And for those adolescent boys who are trying to be chaste and to treat their female peers with respect, it becomes that much harder. 

“I’m talking to parents of 12 and 13-year-old boys whose girlfriends are getting mad at them because they won’t do sexual things,” 

These girls are pushing their boyfriends sexually, and yet we’re still talking about sexual engagement in terms of boy respecting or disrespecting girls.

Of course, any kind of sin denotes, in a certain sense, lack of respect for oneself or others; but that paradigm wouldn’t explain the bizarre, gendered framing: when men and women sin together, the man uses the woman, and the woman is used by the man.

The implicit assumption seems to be that men (unlike women) are sexual creatures whose desires necessarily any degrade any woman they involve.

In fact, Stimpson makes this framing explicit: “Rather, modesty is a virtue, one which recognizes that the Fall made men more prone to using women and women more prone to letting themselves be used.”

In this worldview, the sacrament of marriage somehow sanctifies male desire and exculpates women from the  attendant humiliation; otherwise, it remains primarily a pitfall. Female desire is non-existent.

This discourse constitutes the sexual woman as primarily or solely the object of male desire; in this schema women are by their very sexuality objectified. Women are passive, and sexual women are used objects; the only hope for women is to adopt a posture of protective frigidity and call it modesty.

A great deal of pearl-clutching around the infamous Fiske study revolved around an ostensible* male tendency to associate bikini-clad women with first person verbs (“I handle,)” and fully clothed women with third person words (“She handles”).

Accepting for a moment this extremely tenuous link, is this actually news to anyone? Erotic desire involves the self’s relation to an other, and in a society that dictates varied levels of coverage depending on social context, erotic desire will probably be on average more present in the contexts that require fewer clothes. Certainly my response to a shirtless man is different from my response to one in a three piece suit. There is nothing scary or dehumanizing about this tendency in itself.

All erotic desire requires an “object.” Eros only becomes the pernicious phenomenon of “objectification” when the object of desire becomes an object in a total and primary sense: when the lover’s gaze becomes the only gaze that matters, the only relevant piece of information about the desired; or when “object of a particular desire” becomes synonymous with status as a sub-human object inconsistent with with agency or reciprocal desire.

Whatever the straw feminists in your closet tell you, the male gaze is not inherently malignant. The patriarchy in which it it garners an overwhelming amount of power is malignant; the misogyny that conceptualizes it as a unilateral imperialistic force is malignant.**

And yet we find nothing wrong with speaking about sexual desire as something men do to women, and sexual engagement as if it were something foreign and detrimental to womanhood.

With all the good intentions in the world, pieces like the OSV’s reinforce this oppositional and sexist understanding of sexuality. They normalize sexual violence by framing male-female sexual engagement as an inherently harmful encounter. They demonize male desire and neuter female sexual potency.

We need critiques of the many and perverse ways girls are taught to perform and subjugate their sexuality. We always need efforts  to instill sexual virtue in young men and women. We definitely need someone to tell those girls in the article that pressuring their boyfriends for sex is a wicked and predatory thing to do.

But we don’t need another reductive, objectifying analysis dressed up in the language of respect and dignity.

*I need to keep saying this: this study really didn’t conclusively demonstrate anything

**On its own merits, I think its rather wonderful

Can We Please Stop Deceiving Women?

“If you come to the conclusion that you don’t want to be used, then there’s something you can do to help. We cannot control men, but we can control our actions.”

Of course, there’s a study to back it up. A study that’s been cited, over and over among the modesti, about how men cannot help seeing women in certain garb as objects.

The only problem is that nothing in the cited study backs up this claim. A survey (of a tiny sample size) found that men who harbor hostile sexist beliefs tend to see women in bikinis as objects.

Yes, hostile sexists do tend to relate to women’s bodies as objects! And when you pretend that the problem is women’s swim gear rather than the hostile sexists, you play into their beliefs–that a woman’s body is fundamentally an object, and only an appropriate amount of coverage can maintain the polite fiction of female subjectivity.

Charming posted about this, and was predictably told to calm down. But I don’t think she should calm down, because it is a big deal. It’s a big deal when religious people employ the Cosmo trick of creating insecurities in women in order to push an agenda, whether mercantile or ideological; it’s a big deal when women are told to shape their behavior and clothing choices around the reactions of hostile sexists.

I don’t care whether the problem is lazy reading or deliberate disingenuity. Either way, it needs to stop. Stop pretending that a woman’s dignity is on the line when her skirt is a bit too short for your tastes. Stop misrepresenting research in order to bulk up your bikini crusade. Stop presenting hostile sexism as a normal response to the female body. Stop enabling misogyny.

ETA: This is great. 

What I Don’t Get

among other things, is the line that goes something like this: “Modesty doesn’t mean looking frumpy! In fact, it’s really important to look attractive and your best! You shouldn’t cover up all the way! It’s a fine line!”

Oh great. Because that’s exactly what I wanted in my life, another fine line. To recap: I’m supposed to be sexy but not sexual, or alluring but not sexy; I’m allowed to be smart but not too obvious about it, competent as long I’m sweet; I can be slightly unconventional (it’s really kind of cute, actually!) as long as I don’t deviate in any major ways from the norms of femininity.

And now, I am informed that even that though the same gendered sartorial standards that dictate a more decorative, display-oriented wardrobe for women are responsible for the slightly-too-high hemlines and slightly-too-low necklines that someone always finds problematic, women are still held accountable on both ends.

We’re responsible for any slippage, any showing, any failure to meet someone’s standards of coverage, and we are not allowed to simply chuck it, forget about looking pretty or fashionable, and focus on other things.  We will be policed on whatever side of this invisible tightrope we wobble on.

So basically, what I’m hearing is “We’re not going to challenge this cultural fixation on your decorative role, but we will give you a MEEEELION more ways to obsess over it!”