Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Self Objectification

I recently came across some gifsets of a really awesome TEDxYouth talk by Caroline Heldman. She covers a ton about self objectification, which is a concept many people are probably unaware of. Here's the full video for your viewing and/or listening. But otherwise, here's the gif that hits at what I have observed in my life, specifically:

[Image text: Caroline Heldman saying, "[Self-objectification] lowers your ability to get along with other women. We engage in female competition. We see male attention as the holy grail of our existence by-and-large and so we compete with other women for our own self-esteem because we see it as this finite resource. This cherished finite resource. So we go into parties and we know where we are in the pretty girl pecking order and when another woman is valued for being a sex object, it actually makes us feel bad about ourselves."]

I was really intrigued to see this phenomena explained in this way. I've long felt strange competition from some other women, but I didn't quite have the right words to explain what I was seeing until now. I mean, I knew in a general way that there's a lot of girl hate and that women are encouraged to be hyper competitive with one another (especially for male attention) but Heldman has just so amazingly summarized where this stems from. It's this erroneous belief that (1) female value stems from sexual objectification and (2) male attention is this precious, finite resource that validates that value.

This might sound odd, but I feel like, in general, I dodged a bullet on the self objectification front. Through my upbringing, my educational path, and my early relationships, I was never really encouraged to see my value through my looks. It's not that I thought I was ugly (although I've often, unfortunately, dwelled in those thoughts)...it's that people were always affirming other attributes as the "best" of me (like intelligence and humor.) So I've never associated myself as pretty. When I say that now, I don't mean it is a disparaging comment, just a fact. Overall, I can see my own beauty and I am more and more comfortable in my own skin, but I'm not conventionally attractive.

As a chubby kid before and a fat lady now, I kind of inherently could always tell that the "pretty girl pecking order" was never going to work out in my favor. So I long rejected that way of viewing things, before I even knew it was a way of viewing things. (Not that rejecting it is easy...for a while in my teens and early 20's, I did feel threatened by "hot girls." It's what I was supposed to feel. But a good dose of self-love helped me get over that.)

Anyway, all that is to say that I, by both coincidence and choice, rank very low on the self objectification scale. By in large, when I meet new people, I am able to strike up a happy, casual conversation with women and men alike and feel non-threatened. But every so often, I come across meeting a new woman who is strangely cold and stand offish to me. I usually notice it in the context of the local film industry here, which as I've mentioned, is my husband's field. When I am meeting actresses with him and his film partners, a woman who is warm and welcoming to them sometimes is short with me, or ignores me entirely.

If you've ever had this interaction, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Handshakes, introductions, smiles, and "nice to meets yous!" go all around...except for to you. It's a really strange feeling--like you're invisible. I might just get a "hi" when all the men got a "Hello, so nice to meet you! How are you?" etc. or sometimes women literally won't acknowledge me at all.

I'm not talking about people who are generally shy to everyone. I'm talking about a distinct difference in how I am treated/greeted than the 2-3 men I'm with. And it only happens to me when we are meeting women. It's not super frequent, but I can think of 3 distinct times it's happened in the last year.

So again, when I saw Heldman's video, this all clicked for me. Before, I had a kind of inherent understanding of what was happening, (I'd often comment to Ronald after that so and so doesn't seem to like women.) But now that I'm thinking more about the self-objectifation concept, it's all becoming clearer. Especially since all three women who have treated me this way recently are in a field where their looks and sexuality are of paramount importance.

The thing is, I don't fault them for being this way. They didn't wake up and think, "Gee wouldn't it be fun to orient to the men in the room!" It's a deeply socialized behavior which they are most likely performing subconsciously. I don't write them off as bitches...I just kind of feel frustrated and annoyed that they have no interest in talking to me. And I don't begin to think that all the actress I meet will be jerks...a vast majority of them are sweet, friendly, and openhearted.

But the fact of the matter is that I do meet women who appear to be deeply invested in orienting to male attention, ANY male attention and really, it's kind of sad. I promise, I'm fun to talk to, if they'd give it a try. And it does all make me wonder: how can we, as feminists, support contexts in which women who self-objectify feel like they can let their guard down and shed this mentality?

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