A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with my good friend Dan in Boulder. Among other wonderful things that we talked about that night, we had a challenging and important conversation about the ways we look at women. Dan posed me the tough question of where the line is drawn between appreciating beauty and objectifying women.
We discussed this dilemma for quite a while. It is tough. As a straight male, I am attracted to a wide variety of women, and I like to think that I can appreciate a wide range of beauties. I like to think that I can see a range of body types and see beauty in them all in different ways, appreciating the human form without over-sexualizing and objectifying the women whom I am appreciating.
However, both Dan and I recognized a struggle that we face as straight men who are trying to build a more positive masculinity and male sexuality. We want to simply recognize beauty in the women around us, but too often we realized that it goes far beyond that. The euphemism I use when I speak describes it well: Too often my eyes go down. I stare at women’s bodies with an uncomfortable lust that holds them to a standard of beauty that, frankly, does not exist.
As I try to counteract this tendency, I find that unfortunately I don’t find much company among other men. Dan, being an exception, is one who is committed to finding ways to build a masculinity and sexuality that is not based around unhealthy body images for women, but in my experience I find that few of the men I encounter are. Sometimes I wonder, though, if there are more men out there who are committed to this counter-narrative who, like me, too often remain silent out of fear of not belonging or of standing too far outside of the hetero-normativity of masculinity in our culture.
I hate that I remain silent so often. I hate that I participate in this dance of objectification. I hate it, yet I continue to participate. For instance, the other day I was hanging out with one of my best guy friends, and we decided to join his buddy at a pool for some time in the cool water and sun. I quickly realized, though, that there was more of a motivation to go to this pool than a refreshing dip and a tan. This pool was notorious for having a lot of very stereotypically attractive women in very little clothing. To put it in the words of one of the men in our party, “Let’s go look at some bitches.”
We spent a few hours laying by and lounging in the pool, all the while staring at (while trying not to be too obvious) the women’s bodies around us. Did we engage in meaningful conversation that would more humanize the breasts and butts we were staring at? No . . . Did we learn the passions and interests of the women whose bikini lines we ogled? No . . .
Unfortunately, this was not questioned. It was normal. Pretty much every man there was doing the same, and pretty much every woman there seemed (at least to our lustful gazes) comfortable with the reality of this arrangement.
In the days since this experience, I have thought a lot about it. Why did I, someone committed to the antithesis of this reality, participate in the way I did? Why did I not question the situation or the language used by the men there? Another thing that really has stuck with me is that the women in this space had bodies that were probably the closest to the unhealthy standard of beauty that our society has constructed that I have seen in a long time, and it left me wondering, a standard to which I am sadly attracted. Is this healthy for them?
I can’t say for sure and I can’t judge because undoubtedly there are infinite numbers of body types and I am not a woman, but I imagine that it could be unhealthy in a few ways. To achieve this body type, I imagine many women would need to pursue one of two unhealthy courses. First, they could eat very little while toning their bodies through exercise, thus depriving their body of nutrients and calories that are needed for everyday functions. Second, they could eat relatively normally but work out so regularly that it could become an unhealthy obsession, working out every day to the point that it is no longer healthy emotionally or psychologically (even if their bodies are rather healthy).
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe they are just very healthy young women, but I do know that the way that the men at that pool were looking at them and interacting (or not interacting) with them was not healthy. It was unhealthy because we were not only holding the women around us to an unhealthy standard of beauty while treating their bodies as objects, but we were encouraging within ourselves the unhealthy relationships with women that lead to sexual violence, relationships that treat women as simple objects of our desire rather than human beings deserving of our full respect.
It is time that we as men work to change the way we view women. This is our responsibility, and this is hard work . . . I know because I have been working on it for a long time and I struggle with it every single day. Socialization is a powerful thing, and we have been socialized to see women as sexual objects that should look a certain (read: unhealthy) in order to be worthy of our attention. It is time for us to create our own counter-socialization. We need to hold each other accountable to the ways in which we are looking at and talking about women. We need to call each other out and hold ourselves accountable as well (something I failed to do in going to the pool only a few days ago). We need to not be upset or defensive when women call us out or hold us accountable (and women, it is my hope that, while not your responsibility, you will be more willing to call men out as we further constrict the box of body image in which you are expected to live).
So where is the line drawn between appreciating beauty and objectifying women? I want to hear from my readers! For me, the line must be drawn with relationships. If I am simply staring at a woman’s body, separating the beauty of the female form from her as a person, I am simply objectifying her. When, though, I can appreciate how beautiful a woman is in the context of her as a person, her physical beauty mixed with her beauty as a person with hopes, dreams, passions, faults, and realities, I am taking a step toward appreciating beauty in a much more healthy way. In doing so, though, I must keep in mind the standards of beauty laid out for the women in my life by the media and the men (including myself) and learn to see all types of beauty.
Now your turn: Where do you think the line is drawn between objectification and appreciation of beauty?
Post Script – While this post focuses on the unhealthy body images pressed upon women (and its connection to the larger sexist society), it is important to note that more and more, men are struggling with their own bodies, trying to reach an unhealthy body type portrayed in media and sports. We do need to begin moving toward a more healthy understanding of beauty for both the women AND the men in our society.