What the response to a bikini selfie taught me

That’s the point. This is the point of objectification. These men are not interested in my wholeness as a woman or as a human being. They are not interested in who I am or what I am or how I am. I have been diminished and silenced, reduced to a single body part that only exists for the viewing and consumption of the male gaze.

The Insta post that sparked a deluge of spam comments, mostly from complete strangers.Credit:Courtesy of Kathy Parker

It’s 2022 and we’ve been through the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement and call culture and Grace Tame as Australian of the Year and I wonder if it’s all been ineffective. I shared my own story; the trauma of being objectified as a child for male sexual gratification. Again, everyone who knows me knows my plea against the objectification of women. Yet my inbox is filled with the exact thing I’ve spent the last decade writing and saying words against — all for nothing, it seems.

There are, of course, voices trying to tell me that I take this too seriously. That I should be flattered, if anything. That it doesn’t matter. That if I’m going to post a pic of myself in a bikini, I should expect that kind of response. The voices use the words we use to underestimate the lack of respect, compassion and dignity that accompanies objectification; valuing our body more than our humanity. These are the words that accompany the continued dehumanization and commodification of women.

To be clear, objectification is not the same as admiring someone’s appearance. There is no problem expressing appreciation or admiration for another person’s body in a relationship where love and respect are present. The problem arises when we view another person primarily as a passive object for our own gratification or consumption – when we only comment on a person’s appearance or sexiness; when we no longer regard them with equal respect and value, but privilege their gaze on their complete and entire humanity.

Despite the work that feminist movements have done and continue to do, objectification remains prevalent in our society. We are still taught through advertising, the media, sports, celebrities and the porn industry that women are objects to be looked at, judged, used and discarded.

Young girls are raised in a culture where the reinforced subliminal message is that their bodies, appearance, and sexuality are valued above all else. They grow up believing that they only exist to be seen and therefore must please the male gaze at all times. This leaves them caught in the perpetual slavery of self-objectification – the need to assess and control themselves based on their attractiveness to others rather than in terms of their own health, happiness and well-being.

Change comes from identifying the ways our society continues to objectify and dehumanize women and then refuse to exist within this framework of oppression. It comes from valuing things outside and beyond our physical body.

Then there is the glorification of objectification; the illusion that he grants women power over men. The danger of such thinking is that it continues to support the belief that women remain sex objects above all else. And it’s much easier to justify sexual violence against someone if we see them as an object and not as a person. This is especially true for the porn industry and it normalizes female bodies as commodities to be seen, bought, abused, abused and trafficked for profit.

I go to bed that night, stay awake and wonder if I should write this article. I’m tired of having this conversation. Tired of trying to raise awareness and change a culture so steeped in misogyny that change seems impossible. But, as Martin Luther King jnr said, our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about the things that matter. Although tired, I am not yet silent.

Conversations like these are important. They matter to women, men, and the next generation, who are shaped by social media and its underlying representation of female worth in ways that shape and distort their belief system.

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We need to get the message across that women are more than their bodies. That their bodies are no more worth and valuable than the women themselves. This is where the cultural change lies – not in messages of body positivity, not in eliminating shame around our bodies, not in self-acceptance, but in recognizing that our bodies are not not the most important thing about us.

Change comes from identifying the ways our society continues to objectify and dehumanize women and then refuse to exist within this framework of oppression. It comes from valuing things outside and beyond our physical body – learning to see more of ourselves in order to be more; to oppose the culture of self-objectification and to know that our value and power lie beyond our appearance.

What I learned from this experience is this: as a solitary person, I cannot change the culture of objectification. If I could, I wouldn’t have spent my day deleting unanswered messages, or another day writing this article. But as a solitary person, I have the power not to participate in the culture of objectification. And, in doing so, I may be able to help another to do the same.

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James C. Tibbs