When I was 19, I won a booty shake contest at a local bar (specifically, The ‘World Famous’ Palomino Club, if you live in Winnipeg).
Why did I do it? I was drunk, a friend was egging me on and my boyfriend at the time was unimpressed when I said I was thinking about it. So naturally, I did it to prove a point.
But when I was up there, it felt weird and performative. Even with four (maybe even five?) shots of Fireball in my system, I couldn’t reconcile that feeling. But I walked away with a bunch of cash and bought myself a Big Mac so I wasn’t thinking too hard about it.
Self-objectification (SO) is thinking of oneself as an object of others’ desire first and as a person second.
In simple terms, self-objectification is objectification coming in an incestuous full circle.
According to a study done out of Eastern Michigan University by Kroon & Perez, “regular exposure to objectifying experiences socialize girls and women to engage in self-objectification, whereby they come to internalize this view of themselves as an object or collection of body parts.”
As someone who attended my fair share of therapy growing up, and went through an eating disorder treatment program, I’m surprised that the first time I heard about the concept of self-objectification was when I started trying to put words around this thing I was feeling and noticing.
Let me paint you a picture: A guy sees a beautiful girl in a crowd. Maybe she’s sitting in the corner, or has an imaginary spotlight following her as she floats around the room. Her personality or character doesn’t matter. Everything else melts away, and nothing shines through but her beauty. He chooses her because she’s a mythical creature who’s MYSTERIOUS!!!! Why? Because we know nothing about her other than what she looks like.
Oh, not to mention the fact that we’ve also been socialized to believe that beauty = goodness of character.
Iliza Shlesinger has a bit in her Netflix special Elder Millennial on the fun scenario I described above.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve shoved myself into a tight dress (the one in the photo below is leather and especially terrible) and hoped somebody noticed me. I was totally oblivious at the time how much I was setting myself up for disappointment.
Typing that makes me want to light my computer, and my entire soul on fire. Don’t try to tell me that’s not what we’ve been force-fed in movies and TV. That’s what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner growing up; If we are picked out of a crowd based on looks, it means we are valuable and valued.
The danger with self-objectification is that it is associated with a number of ills including body shame, appearance anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
Think about how that manifests itself for a second: women who self-objectify put all their value on being seen as a sexual object, then when they finally get to the part where they are supposed to be *~SExuAl*`~and have sex, they’re supposed to shut off everything they’ve learned up until that point and “enjoy themselves and be free.” BUT they are typically so preoccupied with the way their *INSERT BODY PART* looks that they can’t. Even. Enjoy it. (NOT THE FIRST TIME I’VE TALKED ABOUT THIS FOR A REASON)
When I did let good men into my life, there was almost a part of me that discredited them for liking me for who I was as a person. After all, I had been completely brainwashed into thinking the only thing that was valuable about me was my looks, and I found it hard to believe someone was going to give a shit about my personality, goals, dreams and hobbies.
I shrugged off accomplishments and thwarted off feeling proud for YEARS. I didn’t think it all meant anything compared to the cultural currency of beauty. This narrative of “how to be a woman” hung over my head playing puppet master, making me do things I knew weren’t right for me.
The worst part is — I had no clue.
My self-objectification was so internalized it was totally undetectable. I wanted to be mad at myself, but I know from reading other women’s stories that I’m not the only one.
Not only had I objectified myself, but I knew I had also done it to other women. For example, every time I would worship someone for their body on Instagram without any regard for their humanity.
I actually felt sick to my stomach when I initially started doing research for this article because it felt like too much to wade through. But here I am writing this, so I guess you could say I put on some rubber boots and I’m getting to work.
I don’t regret participating in that contest (being under 20 is the perfect time to do dumb stuff like that), but I recognize now that winning money by shaking my ass in front of a crowd of strangers and doing things to get them to cheer me on is the perfect marriage of objectification and self-objectification.
Once you understand self-objectification and see yourself acting it out, you can’t unsee it.
I’m still coming to terms with the catastrophic damage that years of self-objectification have done. The diet pills, drinking to be less self-conscious, jealousy, following fit girls on Instagram as weight loss motivation and the *all-consuming concern* that someone will see my cellulite.
When you strip it all away, it’s simply a way of existing in the world. A story we tell ourselves that has been told to us for generations. Awareness is everything. You can contribute to the narrative the media has rammed down your throat, or start to rewrite it.
For me, this isn’t in line with who I want to be, so I’m ready to let it go.
I read in a Psychology Today article that learning about SO reduces its impact (thank goodness), and they suggest that we actively work to…
- Override self-surveillance (e.g. sitting a certain way to look skinny, looking in the mirror constantly to check yourself)
- Reduce our contact with sexually objectifying media (e.g. stop reading appearance-focused magazines)
- Reduce contact with sexually objectifying people or groups (e.g., discussing another woman’s appearance with your friends because of something they posted)
- Choose clothing based on comfort
- Challenge sexual objectification when we hear it or see it
- Decline to participate in demeaning the appearance of ourselves and others
- Counter critical self-statements
- Compliment on things other than appearance
- Cultivate sustainable ways to affirm our worth
Learning about SO helped me find the missing puzzle piece in understanding why my self-esteem was non-existent for most of my life. I’ve gotta say, it’s actually kind of a relief to know what to call it now.
I know it’s going to be a struggle. I know I’ve stumbled already. I know it’s worth it.
The most interesting thing about me has nothing to do with the way I look, and if there’s something I’ve learned in my self-love journey I know I’ll never be satisfied with a well of validation that always runs dry. I have a feeling the next time I get on a stage to prove a point, it’ll be empowering. Not objectifying.