Should Women Give Up the Power that Comes With Being Objectified?
Top image credit: Bin Thiều

I have been sexually harassed more times than I would like to remember. I have also let men objectify me in order to get my way.

While I’m not proud of the latter, I mention this apparent contradiction in the same breath because sexual harassment is inseparable from the kind of power that women get from being objectified. Basically, you can’t have one without the other.  

And before we get sidetracked into any unrelated debate, it is the power that comes with having a female body and the favours men hope to extract from it that we’re talking about here.

When a woman decides to wear a shorter skirt and a low-cut top to her driving test because she’s told it will increase her chances of passing, it’s power. When a woman bats her eyes and puts her hand on the arm of a waiter to get him to bump her to the top of a waiting list at a full restaurant, it is power. I could go on.

Likewise in my personal life, I know that dressing in a revealing, skin tight dress will get me certain favours if I play my cards right, such as free drinks on date night.

I also understand that if I laugh more, maintain eye contact, and put on a full face of makeup before interviewing men (usually) over the age of 40, I am likely to get more candid answers.

As a female friend once aptly put, “It’s amazing how easy and simple-minded men are. You just smile at them and give them a bit of attention and they’ll do whatever you want.”

Nonetheless, if we want to weed out harassment, we have to first address the broader culture that teaches men to objectify women and women to both accept and embrace it.

Whether we dare to admit it, many women know the power that comes from turning ourselves into sex objects.

Ask any woman about their experiences with being objectified. For many of us, it’s become such an integral part of how we live that we don’t even realise it anymore.

For instance, it’s a natural instinct to cross the road when I come across suspicious looking men while walking alone at night. Sometimes, I do this even during the day.

And when I’m out alone with a guy, whether on a date or as friends, I consciously dress in ‘modest’ attire so as not to ‘send the wrong signals’.

As much as it can seem tiring to let where I walk or what I wear be defined by anything besides my personal preference, this is not a battle I choose to fight. And it’s not that I’ve let the expectations of men define my behaviour.

It’s simply the easiest defence against unwanted advances or unnecessary misunderstandings.

I’m also fully aware that this mentality is shared by victim blamers.

Whether we dare to admit it, many women put in effort to look sexier than usual, or to appear more coy, because we know the power that comes from turning ourselves into sex objects. Instead of wracking our brains to deliver a witty line or two, we understand that skin is a currency we possess.

And so when the opportunity arises, we use it to buy what we want.

No woman enjoys being objectified without her consent. Still, most of us figure that if it’s going to happen anyway, then we might as well get something out of it.

In other words, I’ve learnt to turn my weakness into a weapon.

Unfortunately, in the process of doing this, I might be complicit in reinforcing the objectification of fellow women.

All women understand how makeup can tilt the power play in their favour. (Photo: Septian Simon / Unsplash)
Arguably, this isn’t to say that women who take advantage of their objectification do it solely for the tangible benefits.

The world we live in is also one where there is a warped sense of validation in being objectified.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, a recent article on The Cut stated with brutal honesty: “I remember times when I was pointedly not [sexually harassed], when I was passed over by a powerful man whose inappropriate attentions were clearly benefiting some other woman. I admit to having wondered: Why not me? Was I not pretty enough to be a target?”

The author certainly wasn’t “looking for exploitation”. She just wanted to feel like she was good enough. She was “caught in [the culture of objectifying women] and its power imbalances, subject to its rewards and penalties”.

Closer to home, we see instances of this in the way girls pose on social media, from the way they angle their hips to the way they pout their lips. While they’re definitely not asking to be harassed, and many might love looking good for themselves, there’s no denying the sense of validation that comes from men who ‘appreciate’ such ‘suggestive’ posing.

Like the author and perhaps almost every other woman, I’ve internalised the behaviour of letting men have a say in my self-worth. As confident as I am, I know better than to think I’m above male approval.

Occasionally, I still think to myself: if I’m not worthy of a second look, then I must be doing something wrong as a woman.

In most social dynamics, it takes two hands to clap. To claim only one party should do better is reductive and insulting to both.

From young, I’ve been taught not to accept my physical self until men do. No matter how smart or hardworking I am, being considered physically attractive to men is almost always one of the determining factors of my social success.

In comparison, men are thought capable of achieving the same success for various reasons unrelated to their physical appearance, such as charm, money, hard work, and brains.

And if you think this isn’t accurate, just think about how a rich, single, old, but ugly man would fare far better romantically than a rich, single, old, but ugly woman.

As the aforementioned article on The Cut explains, “We cannot fix the destructive, violent, abusive part of [the culture of sexual harassment] without recognising how its tenets and premises make themselves felt throughout the rest of the culture.”

This means that in order to undo the objectification that undermines my gender, we need to look at what influences overall gender power play. We need to understand and deconstruct how women, knowingly or otherwise, use our physical appearances to encourage our own objectification.

This includes the entire ‘tool-kit’ for women’s self-presentation: “the rules, norms, dress codes, available pleasures, and prized characteristics”.

In most social dynamics, it takes two hands to clap. To claim only one party should do better is reductive and insulting to both.

Perhaps when we are willing to accept that both genders share responsibility to stop the objectification of women can we finally have a conversation that doesn’t completely ignore the nuances involved in being female.

After all, no one can deny that the power we accord to male approval has shaped the double-edged sword that women hold. Knowing how to capitalise on our own objectification is one of the great things about being a woman (i.e., if you know how to use it, you can go a long way with it).

But if the bigger goal is truly gender equality, then women need to be willing to give up this power. And men need to stop being so predictable and simple to manipulate, and be more aware of why they treat women the way they do.

This means that men need to stop giving us an easy time just because we’re women. Stop letting us get our way just because of what we wear. Expect us to carry our own boxes, open our own doors, and buy our own meals.

Don’t give us the time of day unless we show up with smarts and humour. Demand better.

At the same time, for all this talk about not treating women as sex objects, I know that men and women are guilty of reaping and enjoying its benefits. So frankly, I would be fine if we never stopped being able to take advantage of men in certain situations. Besides, the genders are already imbalanced, so I am going to take what I can get.

Not because it’s right, but because it’s just so damn easy.

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