What Is Objectification and Why It Is Harmful to Society

Dadu Shin

Imagine you’re looking at a magazine or a fashion blogger’s profile. What do you see? Probably a posing silhouette created by a model with a smooth body. Its value is determined by how close it is to existing beauty standards. This is just one example of practices associated with objectification.

In general, in the tangled constructions of social norms, objectification is one of those practices that are fed and strengthened by the standards dictated by society itself, aesthetic ideals in the media and misogynistic (hate towards women and negative prejudice) opinions.

Simply put, objectification means objectifying people, but what causes this and why objectification hurts women and queers the most, we will find out in the article. Also, we will dive deep into the multiple dimensions of objectification and explain the different layers of its oppressive nature; We will also talk about its impact and discuss what is needed to change the current reality.

What Is Objectification?

If someone has harassed you on the street, called you names, or made an unwanted comment about your body, which made you feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, know that these forms of harassment are also built on the objectification of people, because such actions will only reduce people to external signs.

We face objectification even in online dating. Of course, not everyone uses dating apps to find a relationship, but they do little or nothing to evaluate people beyond their bodies, their individual personality traits, compatibility with another person, worldview, and other traits. Such applications force the user, after viewing a few photos and a small “about me” graph of a potential partner, to instantly make a choice and either save him or like them and try to have a relationship with them.

One of the most widespread areas of objectification is pornography. Women who take part in it are often presented as objects of sexual gratification, and their well-being, consent and desires are completely neglected. It should be noted that not all pornographic products objectify women, and some of them are ethical and based on consent, however, according to a number of feminist opinions, in a patriarchal society in which the male gaze is dominant and similar materials are tailored to their desires, it is impossible for ethical pornography to exist.

We encounter objectification in popular culture products, mainstream media, social media, and anywhere else where the male gaze is dominant.

Male gaze — representation of women in visual art and literature from the perspective of heterosexual men. This kind of gaze describes women, in most cases, as sexual objects. At such a time, women’s existence is entirely aimed at the pleasure of heterosexual men and does not correspond to reality, because such a representation deprives women of intelligence, desire, autonomy, influence, power and reduces them to mere products of consumption.

Objectification turns individuals into meaningless objects and commodities whose social weight is determined by how marketable they are. It also dehumanizes people and reduces their importance to conforming to physical characteristics and conventional attractiveness and values ​​them as such. This inhumane practice reinforces stereotypes and contributes to inequality and oppression, because such reduction of people to objects invalidates their diverse, whole nature.

In order to dive into the complex nature of objectification, we must analyze the mechanisms of its action and the interaction of factors that contribute to its continued existence. Consider how objectification operates at both the individual and structural levels, and how it shapes perceptions, behaviors, and social norms.

Objectification operates in intersecting systems of power and privilege and manifests itself through various mechanisms. For example:

  • Commodification – This practice treats people as commodities and treats them as if they are to be bought/sold or consumed. This approach reinforces the idea that the value of people is completely dependent on their ability to sell in the current market conditions, and the “price” of each person is determined in this way;
  • Sexualization — this practice presents people only as sexual objects. Therefore, as a result of sexualization, we face the avoidance and neglect of their personality, intelligence, emotions and feelings;
  • Dehumanization — this practice deprives people of their humanity and denies that each of them has autonomy, the right to political involvement, and desires. People are considered as dehumanized passive beings who have neither rights and freedoms nor intrinsic values.

There is also internalized objectification, the same self-objectification, which implies the unconditional acceptance of public norms and standards about one’s body and appearance. Those people who self-objectify, first of all, think of themselves as an object. In addition, they value themselves only on the basis of physical attractiveness and not as a person who has intelligence, feelings and abilities in addition to the body. Self-objectification is often discussed in a gender context — doubts about the “inferiority” of one’s own body and the desire to constantly improve it, mainly women have, because they are under much more pressure from society and the gaze of men to look close to the “ideal”. Self-objectification can have a negative impact on mental health and self-esteem.

Impact on Women and Queers

In a heteropatriarchal society, the practice of objectification requires us to see and perceive the world through men’s eyes, including our own bodies. Accordingly, in case of diversion from men, this pressure is noticeably reduced.

Objectification is one of the main signs of a patriarchal society. Like sexism, gender-based discriminatory behaviors are motivated by prejudice and hostile prejudices and arise on gender grounds. In the case of objectification, women prevail among the oppressed, because in a misogynistic society in which men dominate and women are hated, it is natural that restrictions on the body, treatment and sexualization are aimed at the social groups discriminated on the basis of gender.

Since objectification has a greater impact on women and queer people, let’s consider the reasons why this practice is particularly relevant to them.

First, it is important to understand the historical and cultural context of objectification. Historically, women and queer people have been objectified and dehumanized in heteropatriarchal society. Traditional gender roles and expectations make women the objects of men’s desire and reinforce the narrow standards of femininity that we have established in society. For example, tenderness, weakness, inability to take initiative, thinness, lack of critical thinking, etc.

When discussing objectification, it’s important to talk about gendered power dynamics—men tend to hold more social, economic, and political resources. In our society, men are largely the dominant group, which deprives women of autonomy and decision-making not only in relation to their own bodies, but also in terms of involvement in politics.

► Also read: Glass Ceiling – It’s Meaning and Causes

In addition, women and queer people, unlike men and heterosexual people, are much more often the targets of sexualization and discrimination based on their gender or sexual orientation. Sexualization helps turn women’s bodies and identities into objects that have to conform to men’s desires from beginning to end, as they are also dehumanized, while decision-making remains the prerogative of men. However, discrimination and prejudice based on gender identities or sexual orientation further exacerbates the impact of objectification, as women and queers may face additional barriers in their struggle for equality and inclusion.

Also, the pressure to conform to body beauty standards is important because the origins of these standards are closely related to the objectification of people. They reinforce each other and paint a specific picture of what this or that person should look like. It is also necessary to mention that it is difficult or impossible to fit into these standards, and also, in different parts of the world, along with different cultures, different “ideals” are offered.

Popular culture and mainstream media often promote beauty standards that are too narrowly defined. Most people do not fit these standards, but they still exist. This leads to low self-esteem and the perception of oneself as an inferior member of society in young people who are highly vulnerable. The existence of such standards indicates to people that their value is only in appearance and they should be ideal or not, at least close to ideal. This, in turn, leads us to “befriend” eating disorders or cosmetic surgery and other painful procedures in order to conform to expectations and feel less excluded. The process of constant body changes, instead of self-love, strengthens mental health problems.

The hypersexualization of queers, and even more so of queer women and non-binary people, is particularly problematic. This practice is prevalent in mainstream media and popular culture. Under the influence of stereotypes, the idea that queer people are sexually deviant, go beyond the norms and acting only on their desires is becoming more and more established. Such hypersexuality may cause people to want to hide and stay in the “closet”. Because not everyone has the mental or other resources to be in a position to constantly assert that their sexuality is not a violation of the “norms”.

The hypersexualization of queer people is closely followed by the fetishization of queer sexuality and gender identity in heteronormative society. It tends to reduce individuals to objects of sexual attraction and in most cases is based on stereotypical opinions, prejudices and assumptions. For example, bisexual people may be fetishized as sexual adventurers who “never quite figured out” who they are attracted to and are constantly searching; Transgender people may be fetishized for their “exoticness” in terms of body or expression; And non-binary and gender non-conforming people — for existing outside the traditional understanding of gender, because they identify themselves neither as women nor as men, which does not really fit into the framework of a heteropatriarchal society. This kind of banter makes people feel that they are left out and that they do not want to be and be involved in society as full-fledged individuals, and if they want, only with a “quota” of “difference” and novelty.

Another problem that queer people have is the lack of representation. We see queer people and women very rarely or undervalued in mainstream media and various cultural narratives. In the case of women, there is more representation, although the decisions are still made by men and they always have the last word. For example, in most films, the distribution of the percentage of women and men speaking shows that women are seen on screen, but have less access to control the events. And when queers appear in products of mass consumption culture, the roles are often reduced to stereotyping, reducing them to just their sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, the main character’s gay best friend, who is necessarily feminine and crazy about shopping; Also, a lesbian woman, who is necessarily masculine, wears hooded shirts and short hair, and is interested in sports or repairing cars, etc. Given this, the lack of diverse and authentic representation can contribute to feelings of invisibility and marginalization. Also, reinforce the perception of queer individuals that society sees them as objects rather than as independent individuals.

Rape, sexual violence and harassment are also intertwined with objectification, as objectification increases the risk of all of the above-mentioned criminal practices against women and queers. When people are only brought to objects of sexual desire, their consent is also disregarded, which can lead to coercion, assault or harassment.

► Read more about consent: “An Abuser Can Even Be a Partner” — What Is Consent and Why It Is Necessary

Studies on body perceptions also confirm the opinion that the practice of objectification is closely related to the male gaze. In particular, queer men often experience higher levels of body dissatisfaction compared to heterosexuals, while queer women are the opposite — unlike heterosexual women , they are less dissatisfied with their bodies.

  • For example, a study published in 2004 shows that gay men are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies than heterosexual men. Self-criticism is mainly related to weight and muscle tone;
  • For queer men, the pressure to conform to idealized body standards is much higher than for straight men;
  • Gay and bisexual men report more pressure to be more muscular than straight men, according to a 2016 study. This pressure is associated with high levels of body dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia.

While queer men are under increased pressure to conform to beauty standards, queer women, on the other hand, are less susceptible to this pressure — trying to resist it more and being more confident about their bodies.

The key to queer women’s body acceptance lies not only in self-love, but in supporting the community that empowers them. Support and acceptance of a community with which people feel a sense of belonging is also extremely important in relation to body love. According to a 2014 study published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, lesbian women reported that they, unlike heterosexual women, received more social support from the LGBTQ+ community than heterosexual women from their hetero circles, which in turn may have an impact and Contribute to the formation of a negative body image.

How to Deal with and Fight Objectification

In a hetero-patriarchal system based on the male gaze and women’s bodies as objects and their minds devoid of critical thought, any attempt at change is seen as a major challenge. Such changes challenge the dominance of men because they question their competence and the system of governance that society has long obeyed.

Due to the systemic nature of the problem, the fight against objectification requires joint efforts and not only at the individual level, but also requires structural changes in society. However, one thing is clear — if objectification is eliminated or reduced, it is possible to make society less oppressive, more just, equal, and inclusive.

Strategies to combat objectification may include:

  • Education and awareness raising — in order for society to make a decision to fight objectification, it is necessary to know why it is harmful and why it prevents the creation of an equal environment. Awareness raising campaigns and discussion of the problem from a feminist point of view will help to generate discussions and build common sense on these topics;
  • Supporting diversity and inclusion — promoting diverse and inclusive portrayals of people in media, popular culture, small independent projects, and other spaces is critical to combating beauty standards and objectification. Creating and strengthening diverse voices and narratives will help to erase existing stereotypes, harmful prejudices and provide a detailed understanding of the diverse and multi-layered nature of people;
  • Advocacy and Policy Change — by advocating for policy change and institutional reform, we can address the grounds for objectification to the systemic factors that contribute to the production of an unequal society. Such transformation includes advocating for laws and regulations that protect people from discrimination and harassment and promote gender equality and body neutral concepts, which are especially needed at the individual level in the process of body love;
  • Creating supportive communities — It is important to create communities that promote self-acceptance and acceptance of bodies, reject the use of objectification, and aim to eliminate it as a harmful practice. Such communes are built on movements supporting the concept of body neutrality and positivity. According to the concept of body neutrality, we should accept bodies as neutral both emotionally and physically, which means not supporting unnecessary restrictions to fit into standards, but also not constantly working to love every part of the body at every moment, because, according to the followers of this movement, the main question is, what my body can do, not whether it is beautiful or not. The concept of body positivity is a social movement that preaches total acceptance and love, and promotes a positive view of all body types in the world, regardless of size, shape, skin color, gender, or physical ability. Its proponents also focus not on a person’s appearance, but on the functionality and health of the body, although the main focus is the radical acceptance and love of bodies. Creating these kinds of communes, by sharing experiences and starting conversations about these issues, will help all members of the community to be more comfortable in their bodies and less judgmental of others based on their physical characteristics.