Earlier this month, Hugh Hefner was asked whether he objectifies women. His answer says a lot about our culture's confused attitude to female beauty.
"The notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous. Women are sex objects. If women weren't sex objects, there wouldn't be another generation. It's the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go 'round. That's why women wear lipstick and short skirts."
The news program I was watching played the clip, then panned to two female newscasters for commentary. The women laughed nervously. "Well," said one, "I think a lot of people will excuse his comments because of his age… And women, we like to be looked at that way, sometimes." Both women seemed extremely uncomfortable, and they cut away quickly to a local news story.
The image of the two heavily made-up, painstakingly styled women employed in an image-based profession struggling to negotiate Hefner's statement illuminates an essential issue we have living as women today: How do we maintain a strong feminist identity in an image-based society? In our world, women are sex objects. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, we are constantly trying to be sexy but not too sexy, balancing carefully between the Madonna and the whore, striving to maintain control over an external self which is unrelentingly judged by the outside world.
When I saw this clip, I was at the gym. There I was, pumping away at the elliptical, which is pretty much as far away from fun as you can get, clocking my requisite 45 minutes and participating in the beauty myth with every cal/minute. As I scowled furiously at the overhead tv, I couldn't help but feel a little guilty. I wasn't on the elliptical for my own enjoyment, and I was there only partly for my health. I was there to maintain a body standard. I was, at that very moment, objectifying myself.
Regardless of profession, women are required to maintain a certain model of beauty standards. In job interviews, I'm expected to always wear make-up and high heels. I understand the professional wardrobe: the nice skirt or pants, the button-down shirt–but high heels? High heels hobble, hurt and inhibit my ability to move quickly. And yet I wear them, because I need a job, and I've been told they help my chances, and I can't fight a global battle at the expense of my ability to make a living.
"When a brilliant critic and a beautiful woman… puts on black suede spike heels and a ruby mouth before asking an influential professor to be her thesis advisor, is she a slut? Or is she doing her duty to herself, in a clear-eyed appraisal of a hostile or indifferent milieu, by taking care to nourish her real gift under the protection of her incidental one?"
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
Can we participate in the beauty myth and still garner respect? How can these newscasters protest Hefner's statement without feeling hypocritical? Can we in good conscience profit off of our object-hood, and do we have a choice not to even try? Society isn't fair. No amount of hard work will be fairly compensated, no degree will stop people from looking at our chest.
Worst of all, the myth says that we do this to ourselves. It is guilt, and not anger at an unfair world, that puts the uncomfortable expressions on the newscasters' faces. They can't rebuff Hefner because they are led to believe that it's their fault. They are agents of their own objectification. They willingly transform themselves into sex objects every morning they get dressed in professional but body-conscious suits, and paint their lips red. They profit off of it, like women getting free drinks at a bar.
But is it really even free will? Do they, or we, really even have a choice? To a certain extent, yes, we are complicit– but do we really lose all feminist credentials when we participate in self-objectification? Sure, we could get a free drink–but a free drink really doesn't compensate for the fear, the guilt, the danger and the constant struggle of living in a female body, not to mention generations of oppression, lesser pay and endless damage and on top of it all, an "it's her own fault" mentality which pushes all the liability back to us.
The newscasters wouldn't have even gotten the job without lipstick, and they're still paid less than men–but they feel guilty, we feel guilty, for participating in our own objectification. Guilty enough not to protest when Hugh Hefner reduce us to empty sex objects, guilty enough to relinquish our ability to protest at all, because sometimes we wear a short skirt.
Want to see your work here? Email us!