Oct 032014

This is a topic that’s particularly vexing for me. My parents totally bungled it, doing far worse than saying nothing, and instead, leaving me with a legacy of muddled confusion and zero self-confidence. Even in my forties, I often find myself mystified by this topic.

I’ve written a draft post on this subject, but I thought, rather than post that, I’d start by posting some questions, things that I think are worth thinking through, questions whose answers may not always be apparent to everyone, and questions that may not have universally agreed-upon answers, and some assertions, things that I think I (and others) would do well to bear in mind.

These lists aren’t intended to be comprehensive, but gestural. I’d love more questions, and more assertions, if you have them.

You see an attractive person you’ve never met. Is it ok to:

1) Look the person in the eye and smile? …
2) and raise an eyebrow suggestively? …
3) and say, “Hi!”? … or
4) and say, “Hey baby.”? … or
5) and say, “Hey good-looking.”? … or
6) and say, “I want a piece of that.”?

Is it ok to allow your eyes to travel up and down the person’s body ostentatiously, appraising it?

You are alone. You walk past that person. Is it ok to:

1) Subtly turn your head after passing her or him, to get a glimpse of what s/he looks like from behind? … or
2) Brazenly turn your head, even as you’re passing one another, and lowering your eyes to her/his ass for all to see? … and
3) Turning to another passing person and saying, “Now that’s what I’m talking about, right?” … or
4) Saying, “Nice ass!”

You have a colleague. She has recently lost a substantial amount of weight. Is it ok to comment? What is it ok to say? (What do you want to say? Why?)

You have a colleague. She has recently gained a substantial amount of weight. Is it ok to comment? What is it ok to say? (What do you want to say? Why?)

In each of these cases, why is it ok? Why is it not ok? How does the gender of the person affect your thinking? What if it were a man instead of a woman? How does your gender affect your thinking?

Now. Imagine you’re at work, with a colleague. She gets her hair cut, and looks particularly attractive. Do you comment on her haircut? What do you say? Most important, why?

Similarly, your colleague is wearing an outfit that flatters her body, that makes her look good. What, if anything, do you say? Why? Or she’s made herself up, and the make-up is flattering….

And why – why am I asking all these questions? Why are these things that so many people/men seem to want to do?

Now, imagine in each of these cases that your colleague isn’t a woman, but is, instead, a man. (How) does that change your answers to the questions? Why?

Assertions to ponder, to bear in mind:
Men have power over women. By virtue of our physical strength, and by virtue of our social, economic, and political privilege. This imposes on us an obligation to be mindful of our relative power – and of the prospect that we might be perceived as threatening, whether implicitly or explicitly – in every interaction with a woman, always.

Any comment on a woman’s appearance by a man is a potential assertion of power.

If a man is to comment on a woman’s appearance, it’s important that he be sure that the comment isn’t an assertion of power over that woman, or a statement of disregard or disrespect for non-sexual aspects of the woman.

Our gaze has power: there’s a thin line between an appreciative glance and a threatening leer. That line may well vary from woman to woman, and from man to man.

Intent is not visible; actions are. Often, we impute intentions to people on the basis of their actions, and our histories, that have nothing to do with their intentions. It’s important to bear this in mind when acting, and to respect the possible imputed intentions, just as it’s important to bear it in mind when imputing intentions to others.

And, just to complexify things:

Many women enjoy being objectified, being reduced to sexual objects, in certain situations.

Many women enjoy an appreciative glance, or even a stare.

There are women who enjoy catcalls.


I don’t really have a point here. In many of my other “The Talk” posts, I’ve had points I was hoping to get across. In this case, in this post, at least, I’m trying simply to flag complexity, and perhaps to open it up to discussion, to others’ thoughts. As I wrote at the top of the post, this is an area in which I am particularly lacking in confidence, experience, and wisdom.

What do you say here?

  2 Responses to “Objectification – questions, not answers”

  1. Sooo many things to say here but I’ll just concentrate on a couple. The first is that all of these questions are often defined by culture. Here, where I live it is openly acceptable for men to turn their heads, whistle, smile or even comment and I often smile back, say thank you or if they are doing it in a really seedy way, ignore them. More often than not it’s friendly and unobtrusive and I feel flattered.

    Second is about something I read. It was about a man who ended up getting a ride with a larger more physically imposing gay man and feeling quite threatened even if the gay guy hadn’t done anything or even said anything. I’m guessing that if you think about those questions and imagined yourself in those situations with a large imposing gay guy doing those things you’ll understand the answers.

    • Totally agree. And, for the record, I think most of these questions have fairly obvious answers in most cultural contexts, but they’re worth thinking through.

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