On Self-Objectification

Woman on a red bed taking a selfie for Selfies and Self-Objectification by Malin James

Selfie by Malin James

I’m a contrary person. If there’s a popular take on something, I tend to play devil’s advocate, if only for the sake of discussion. The idea that selfies are a form of female “self-objectification” is one of those issues. The only difference is that, in this case, my objection is rooted in actual disagreement, not just the spirit of debate.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on selfies and their social impact. A lot of articles voice a concern that selfies foster poor self-esteem in young women and a reliance on external validation. Others protest that selfies as narcissistic, vain and shallow—also as regards women. Still others point out that posting selfies can make a woman vulnerable to bullying, predation, anxiety and stress.

All of these concerns are valid – in some cases. In others, selfies are a source of healthy self-expression, positive reinforcement, memories and the basic human drive to exclaim Hey! I was here! It all depends on the person and their motive for taking the selfie, and that’s far too contextual a thing to usefully question or protest.

What I take issue with is the assertion that selfies are a form of self-objectification, ie: that women who take selfies have unknowingly drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid.

So, what ‘self-objectification’ and why I have an issue with it?

Before we can deal with self-objectification, we need to start with objectification as a concept. Objectification is a theory that refers to the treatment of a person, usually a woman, as an object, stripped of autonomy and subjectivity. (For a detailed definition, click here). Objectification is usually assumed to be sexual at its core.

According to feminist theory, sexual objectification is a symptom of the male gaze, a way of seeing everything, including women, through a male, often sexualized, lens. According to critics, the male gaze has led to internalized misogyny – that’s the drinking of the patriarchal Kool-Aid I mentioned earlier. It’s the idea that women have been subjected to the male gaze for so long that we’ve internalized an objectifying view of ourselves and other women.

While I do believe that internalized misogyny can manifest in all kinds of subtle ways, it isn’t, and can’t be, inherent in selfie-taking. Here’s why.

Objectification is something that is done to you. It’s the lens through which you are viewed. Even if you wear nothing by fuck me pumps and a smile, you are not objectifying yourself. You might be inviting objectification, but odds are you aren’t viewing yourself an object devoid of autonomy and reason. You’ve simply presented yourself in a sexualized way. Objectification is the step other people take when they see you.

So, is it possible for women to self-objectify? Can a woman see herself as a thing stripped of personhood and subjectivity? Can a woman view herself as an object? Well…while it’s possible, especially in cases of abuse, but casually speaking it isn’t likely.

When a woman takes a selfie, she’s acknowledging that she has a body. She isn’t stripping herself of intelligence, resilience, bad-assness or anything else. Those qualities still exist in the way she sees herself, regardless of how she angles her body. She is simply asserting her physical presence for reasons of her own and that is what subjectivity is all about.

Whether you like it or not, inviting objectification is a legitimate, autonomous choice. Whether or not it’s a symptom of internalized misogyny is as unique to the individual woman as is any other motive for selfie-taking, which brings me full circle.

People take selfies for all kinds of reasons. Judging those reasons as shallow, vain, dangerous or anti-feminist is as useful as judging someone’s motives for eating an ice cream cone. Sure, you could eat ice cream for unhealthy reasons. You could eat ice cream to excess. Or you could just eat ice cream because it tastes good and you want ice cream. There are too many possible motives to warrant casting it in a reflexively cautionary light.

The same thing goes for selfies – protesting on the grounds of internalized misogyny discounts the many reasons she might have for taking the picture. It denies her the ability to make an autonomous choice and strips her of sovereignty over her image and how she uses it. That’s anti-feminism dressed up as real feminism, and it’s much more dangerous than the hottie in your timeline.

Selfies are a curious thing. As a species, we are preoccupied with our presence in the world. It’s why we have cave paintings, graffiti, art, and most other forms of human accomplishment. They are an assertion of presence – a huge I WAS HERE shouted into the void of existence. Selfies are just another way to shout into the void. It’s an assertion of presence, regardless of the reason, and that makes selfies important. The fact that women use them to assert their presence in the world for reasons of their own is a devil worth advocating for.

14 Comments

  1. Another fabulous thought provoking and beautiful post.
    Thank you Malin x x

  2. holdenandcamille

    August 18, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    So much to think about, dear Malin, and I thank you for the though-provoking questions. Meanwhile, I will continue to pose for my husband because we both enjoy the process and the little hobby that brings us together and helps us connect. We told ourselves we would stop doing this if it ever stopped being fun, but we’re almost five years in and we still have ideas! ~C

    • And thank god you do! You know I love the images that you and H create. They are *beautiful* and the pleasure and joy they give you is obvious. No one can tell me that that they aren’t as empowering as they are gorgeous.

    • Yes! Keep making and posting those they are an utter joy to behold, Camillle – absolutely agree with Malin x x x
      You too, Malin, I should have said, the photo here is spectacular x

  3. This is really insightful. The liberation of women was of course necessary, but in some circles this was corrupted when aesthetics and pleasure were considered to be necessarily demeaning (which when practised properly they are certainly not). Empowerment must mean being free to do what makes you feel right, however that may be judged by others.

    You write beautifully.

  4. See, I would say that a lot of selfies are about the opposite. It’s about how a woman sees herself as a subject, as the subject of her own life.

    Sure, some of them may be self-objectifying, but like you I feel like we are projecting a lot of internalized misogyny on those women who love their bodies enough to take naked pictures of them.

    In a world where being less than perfect is a moral failing, it’s a great act of courage and rebellion to display your less than perfect body and be proud of it.

  5. This is such a great post. I view that argument that my images are a result of me drinking of the patriarchal Kool-Aid just as view the exactly identical argument that my desire to submit to a man is the result of the same thing, both are utter bollocks. I do both because I am luckily enough to live in a time in history where I can CHOOSE to do those things because I like and enjoy them.

    Mollyxxx

    • And it’s a woman’s choice to do *anything* with her body, mind and emotions that she sees fit that is the essence of female empowerment. And you’re so right – we’re lucky to live in a time when we have choices. For centuries that wasn’t the case. It’s a privilege to exercise judgement on our own behalves and I can’t stand the idea of women judging other women for doing so. rawr.
      xxx

  6. (Sorry if this is a duplicate Malin. Wasn’t sure if the first attempt went through?)

    Then we’re both contrarians, especially as regards the topic of sexuality. Though it’s not within the scope of your post, I think there’s another aspect to this — and that’s the unstated (perhaps even subconscious) impulse to control others. It’s no great insight to state that men use rhetoric and frame arguments to manipulate others (including women), but women, and a variety of voices in the feminists/women’s rights movement, are just as “misogynistic” (to use a term that’s become about as useful as calling someone a fascist).

    I wouldn’t discount the intent to manipulate. Selfies are a form of sexuality and there’s nothing sexual this isn’t a “fetish”. And I think a lot of criticisms leveled at selfie-takers arises from an unacknowledged aversion to this particular form of sexual expression—which primarily combines voyeurism and exhibitionism. Some people (women more than man I think) –just– –don’t– –get– the pornographic appeal. Just as many don’t get the appeal of anal sex, humiliation, bondage, doggy style, S&M… you name it. And because they don’t get it, they conclude that it must therefore be subversive, deviant, immoral, degenerate and if they’re psychologists or psychiatrists, let’s say, they’ll label it, call it a mental illness or disorder (such as homosexuality) and thereby validate their own sexuality and “normative” world view. Because if somebody else likes something that they don’t, the other person must be mentally ill.

    To me, criticism of selfies (inasmuch as its a sexual fetish) is no different than an aversion to homosexuality or any other sexual “deviance”. The problem is not with the selfie taker, but with the one making the criticism. Its they who have sexual issues to deal with. After all, maybe it’s the critics who are mentally ill?

    But, if you’re one those “misogynistic feminists”, the best way to manipulate and align others with your own norms of sexual behavior is by asserting that the other has been brain-washed. The assertion is a win/win. Not only do you assert that the selfie-taker is morally and politically wrong, but any argument made to the contrary is a validation of their criticism. See? Look at Malin’s blog. See how her blog is designed to appeal to the male gaze? Malin has so internalized the patriarchal control of women that she makes their argument for them, proving our contention.

    It’s a way of framing beliefs that’s as old as religion — asserting belief as moral fact. To whit: If you disagree that Jesus is your savior, it’s only because you’ve been duped by Satan. Any argument against them only confirms their diagnosis. (How could you possibly disagree with them unless you weren’t under Satan’s control?)

    Unfortunately, it’s a side of the feminist dialectic that I see all the time. If you’re not with us, then you’re disagreement only confirms the rightness of your argument.

    • Hey Will. The first went through but no worries on the duplicate. Personally, I agree with you on pretty much every point, particularly on female misogyny. There’s so much in that and how it relates to the *female* gaze (as opposed to the internalized male gaze) and its emphasis on behavioral control that deserves its own post. In the meantime, I’m glad you brought it up in relation to feminism and self-objectification. There’s a lot of unintended misogyny in knee-jerk, woman on woman, judgementalism. It bears as much examination and critique as other, less subtle forms of misogyny and sexual judgement.

  7. I really love this article, it’s very insightful! I have to say no matter what others think though I will continue to photograph myself and post them on my account that I have! I love, love to wear lingerie, I feel sexy and beautiful in lingerie! I know I have a few curves but I’m not ashamed of them either. No, I’m not arrogant by all means, to tell you the truth I’m very shy in person! I do think if a woman feels comfortable enough to take the time to take sexy photographs of herself why not post them if she’s proud of herself and her body.
    I personally have to say and think it really doesn’t matter what other people think (but that is my opinion) as long as I’m happy with myself! No matter what I’m criticized all the time about everything I do, not just by other women, but by my own family, friends, coworkers, neighbors etc. because I’m never going to make everyone happy and if I even attempted to try to make everyone happy I would be unhappy. I mean no matter where I go in life there is always someone out there ready to criticize me no matter what, where, or why. It’s sad to say, but it is true!
    So why not continue with photographing myself in lingerie and posting them as long as I enjoy it no matter what everyone else thinks, as long as I’m happy with what I’m doing. When I become unhappy with it I will stop but only on my own decision no one else’s.

    • Absolutely, Ellery – I think that’s marvelous. Taking joy in photographing yourself in beautiful lingerie is a wonderful thing, and so long as it does give you joy, there is no reason in the world why you shouldn’t do it. Other people’s disapproval isn’t nearly so important as your healthy enjoyment of yourself (she declared!)

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