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Research Blog: How does being objectified in romantic relationships make girls feel?

by Kimberly Belmonte

In New York City, life lessons happen on the subways.  Monday morning, out of the corner of my eye, I see this guy across the aisle staring at me. And I begin having these rapid-fire flustered thoughts about my hair and my outfit, “Is my hair one giant curly poof in this 2000% humidity?  Is my shirt too low-cut?”  In that moment on the subway, when I felt like my appearance was being scrutinized, I began scrutinizing myself to figure out if something was wrong, even though the problem was obviously with Mr. Creeper’s manners, not my outfit.

As I continued my subway ride, I looked around at all the couples canoodling, and I thought to myself, what if it hadn’t been a stranger who’d been ogling me, but had instead been my romantic partner?  In most of our blogging we’ve talked about being objectified by strangers  or being sexualized by the media, but not about objectification that can happen in romantic relationships. I couldn’t help but wonder, are there any consequences of being objectified in the context of a romantic relationship?

I mean, in some ways we often want to be ogled by our lovers; physical attraction is a part of sexual attraction. But there is a fine line, perhaps, between being seen as attractive, and being seen as an object. Researchers Lauren Ramsey and Tiffany Hoyt[1] wondered where that fine line between attraction and objectification actually existed in relationships.  They wanted to know whether women were feeling objectified by their male partners and if they were, how this affected them.  In their recent study, they gave 119 heterosexual women a survey asking how much their bodies were scrutinized by their partners and how they felt about their own bodies.

Just like my experience on the subway, they found that the more women felt that their partners scrutinized their bodies, the more likely they were to look at their own bodies as objects – they started to take an outside view of themselves.  The researchers also discovered that self-surveillance was related to women feeling ashamed of how their bodies looked, a decreased desire for sex and a decreased belief that they could refuse sex if they didn’t want it.  So, when women had partners who objectified them, they tended to feel less in control of their own bodies when it came to sex.    It turns out that being ogled by a partner isn’t so romantic after all.  In fact, the opposite is true: women whose partners objectify them are less aware of and capable of acting on their desires!

Focusing too much on how our bodies look, rather than what they can do is something that we know is bad for girls and women. When women think about their own bodies as objects rather than experiencing their bodies as subjects, they’re more likely to engage in disordered eating and have more body shame and lower self-esteem.  Research like this study has also found that women who self-objectify might have less sexual agency—meaning that they are less likely to make decisions about sex based on what they want and desire rather than what someone else wants and desires from them.[2],[1]  And this is something that can have some pretty real, pretty dangerous consequences for women.  If you aren’t thinking about yourself as a whole person but are really concerned with how you are appearing to others, it makes sense that you might be less concerned with your feelings, wants or desires.

When I felt scrutinized on the subway it was maddening that that one guy’s unwanted attention made me feel bad—even though his sexualizing stare was the real problem! Having strangers objectify us is bad enough. We don’t need romantic relationships, which are supposed to be supportive contexts, reinforcing the same crap.  Instead, I think we should challenge the idea that sometimes objectification is okay or even desirable.   We need to flip on its head this notion that being seen as an object is sexy.  After all, the sexiest thing of all is knowing what you want and how you feel. Girls and women are not simply here to be desired by others, we also need to express our own wants and needs.  So when it comes to being considered an “object of desire,” I object.

[1] Ramsey, L. R. & Hoyt, T. (2014). The Object of Desire: How Being Objectified Creates Sexual Pressure for Women in Heterosexual Relationships.  Psychology of Women Quarterly.  DOI: 10.1177/0361684314544679

[2] Impett, E. A., Schooler, D., & Tolman, D. L. (2006). To be seen and not hear: Femininity ideology and adolescent girls’ sexual health. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 129–142

SPARK Artists: The Guerrilla Girls and activism as art

by Brenda Guesnet

Some of you might be familiar with the image above: it’s arguably the most famous poster artwork of the anonymous feminist group “Guerilla Girls.” The Guerilla Girls have been active since the 1980s, and became famous for their billboards and posters calling out sexism and racism within the art world. The poster does a great job of not only highlighting the fact that women artists have been actively excluded from the “canon” of art, but also connecting this lack directly to the way women have been exploited as – often naked – subjects in art. What this means is that girls and women that visit art museums will see themselves depicted through the male artist’s gaze, rather than as protagonists or the makers of the images they see – art thereby predictably reproduces a pattern we can observe throughout most of society.

What somehow makes this even more dangerous, is that the art context gives this particular brand of sexualization a kind of prestige: as opposed to advertisements or pop music videos, the distinguished halls of an art museum or the pages of a thick textbook lend the images we see there an often unquestioned authority. We forget that there is a conscious – and potentially biased – decision behind every artwork and artist represented, which in turn can make these images even harder to question and reject. Furthermore, art being *art*, people often prefer to see it as something separate from society and politics, rather than holding themselves accountable for oppressions that art perpetuates and reproduces. So that’s exactly what the Guerilla Girls set out to fight against, perhaps ironically eventually entering the exact institutions they were critiquing.

This exclusion of women and people of color from the art world is also what this new ongoing series, SPARK Artists, is all about. What does it mean to be a woman or girl artist working within such a patriarchal tradition? How does it affect women artists’ work, if at all, and how do they perhaps attempt to fight back against this through their art? Should we even be approaching women artist’s work through the lens of gender and feminism, or is this actually counterproductive and limiting? This series will be exploring these questions through both real live women and girl artists and those that chose this profession perhaps under even more difficult conditions a couple of decades (or centuries) ago.

Despite their institutionalization, the Guerilla Girls are pretty revolutionary in a lot of ways, and the fact that they rose to such fame can, in my opinion, only have worked towards a more equal acknowledgement of female artists. The group formed in 1985 when the MOMA staged an exhibition that was framed as being a definitive survey of contemporary art – but featured only 13 female artists out of 169. The soon-to-be Guerilla Girls were outraged, for obvious reasons, and as their protest garnered little attention, they decided to form an anonymous collective, trademarked by intimidating gorilla masks. Up to this day, no one knows who is behind these masks, because the members refuse to show their faces and adopt pseudonyms of dead female artists such as Frida Kahlo or Käthe Kollwitz. To take such an approach within a Western art context that is very intent on individual authorship (never mind that the most expensive works nowadays are made by artist’s assistants) and fosters an obsession over big names and personalities, is pretty radical.

Thinking about how to make a change in the sexism of the art world, the Guerilla Girls’ emphasis on the collective in opposition to the idea of the individual genius is crucial: we can’t just replace our old geniuses with new ones, and merely revising art history books to “uncover” women artists and artists of color won’t do either. Instead, we have to question the very notions of a canon and of individual genius that have produced this patriarchal structure, in order to overthrow it.

The “anonymous collective” concept isn’t the only thing we can learn from the Guerilla Girls: the fact that they are basically a grassroots movement means that they can still inspire many ways in which we can protest the ongoing exclusion of women from and the sexualization of women in art. For instance, the Guerilla Girls used to do “weenie counts” in museums (counting the amount of male artists as opposed to female ones, or the amount of naked women as opposed to men) – why not do this in your local museum to find out how well women are represented there? They also put hundreds of stickers in and around museums to protest their female to male ratios. And one thing that has definitely changed since the 1980’s is museums’ presence on social media: this gives us another great platform to call institutions out on their sexism and lack of representation.

A couple of things may have changed since the first Guerilla Girls poster was released in 1989, but women artists and artists of color remain highly underrepresented in the art world. This is why SPARK is launching a new series – SPARK Artists – that highlights female visual artists and their work. We will be writing about and interviewing artists across all mediums, continents, backgrounds, and eras, including both artists that have “made it” as well as those just starting out. Following SPARK’s mission to end sexualization, this series is motivated by the belief that supporting and promoting female artists and artists of color is vital for the fight against sexualization – both in art and beyond.

Summer reading redux: Americanah

by Sam Holmes

I haven’t had the best experiences with required summer readings. An ever growing pile of books haunted me throughout the Julys and Augusts of my high school career. Moby Dick traveled with me to the beach, Taming of the Shrew was in my purse during the summer carnival, and  Othello was an unwelcomed guest at my July family reunion. With the exception of Moby Dick, these books were not unpleasant to read. However, part of me resented the fact that these pieces were making unwanted appearances in my coveted vacation time. The lack of diversity made matters worse. My summers were filled with works from the western canon. It seemed that my school mainly valued the works of white males. I assumed that my future college would be the same way. I was wrong. My required reading book for summer 2014 was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. It was an amazing change of pace.

First and foremost, Americanah’s protagonist, Ifemelu, is a magnetic character. The multi-faceted nature of her personality appears throughout her experience. Ifemelu, who is occasionally referred to as Ifem, is not easy to describe. This is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Ife is haughty, insecure, judgemental, vulnerable, grateful, blunt, loving, wise, bold, manipulative, and compassionate. Just to clarify, these are only the traits from the the first half of the novel. As the story progresses, so do Ifem’s characteristics.

Americanah chronicles Ifem’s journey from Nigeria to the United States as well as her eventual return to Nigeria. This major transition is the event which inspires such a three dimensional character. In the years leading up to her departure, Ifem experiences highs and lows that are incredibly relatable. As an adolescent in Nigeria, Ifem begins to ask questions about her surroundings and the people within them. Topics such as religion, body image, teenage relationships, sexuality, gender dynamics, and family pressure all leave their mark on the poignant protagonist’s early years. Amid these events, Ifem never stops asking questions. When she witnesses societal wrongs in Nigeria, such as government corruption or social hierarchies, Ifemelu expresses her disapproval.

This pattern continues when Ifemelu arrives in America. However, race becomes a more pivotal topic in her life. As a Nigerian in America, Ifem both experiences and observes American racism. Ifem is pressured to perm her hair in order to be more appealing to employers. She is refused service at beauty salons. Her peers expect her to be the mouthpiece for black people during classroom discussions. She encounters men who aren’t attracted to her because of her race, as well as those who are drawn to her because of her complexion. Feminism is a central topic as well. In both Nigeria and America, Ifemelu takes note of the ways in which women are expected to behave. Ifem records her  adventures and misadventures in her blog,  Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) By A Non-American Black.

After finishing this book, I understand why Americanah was selected for the incoming class of first years. It is honest in the most necessary way. It is a story composed of layers and literary labyrinths. It spans multiple continents, decades, genders, and ideologies. Racism, sexism, classism, shadeism, and numerous other ‘isms’ are confronted throughout the pages of Americanah. It provides a view into these problems that any people may have never discovered otherwise. Those who have endured these problems can find comfort and validation in the Adichie’s words. These systems of oppression are highlight in her work. People who have never faced such injustices can begin to realize how prevalent and robust these discriminatory frameworks are. More importantly, this narrative displays why such practices must come to an end.

Even if my school hadn’t mandated Americanah, I would have read it anyway. Before reading the first page, I had a feeling that I would enjoy this story based off of its author. I admire Chimamanda. After hearing her definition of the word feminist in Beyonce’s song,Flawless, I began searching for more information about her. She is a candid activist whose wit, insight, and sense of humor translates beautifully into her work.



You wouldn’t understand, you can only feel: an interview with Diana Fathi

by Elisabed Gedevanishvili

I am sure you have never heard of an inspiring artist, Diana Fathi. Diana was born on the first night of fall into a family of doctors. As a teenager she was quite shy, and her English accent always got in the way of proudly speaking in her native language, Farsi. After finishing school quite young at the age of sixteen, she had two choices that lay ahead of her: she could either be a doctor or an engineer. Diana was never forced to choose, but as she said, “all parents love their children to be engineers or doctors. But I hate blood.” She majored in engineering. Today she is a theatre actress, on her way to master the philosophy of arts.

Diana’s life growing up and maturing was hard. Surrounded by wars, attacks and personal problems, it’s no surprise that her role model is a famous German writer Herta Muller, whose parents lived through  WWII and who wrote war-inspired novels such as The Hunger Angel and The Land of Green Plums. Inspired by individuals like Muller, Diana dreams of becoming one of those women who change something in this world: “I must be one of those women. I want to change something for human beings, not for me or my family or my country, but for the whole galaxy. It’s my duty. I’m working hard to do this.” When asked what she wanted to be in life she proudly replied, “I have never wanted to be a man. I love women who are strong and full of emotions. Personally, I live with my feelings and emotions. We should let out everything. I always think with my heart first and then with my brain. If I want to cry, I cry. I am not afraid of crying. I am not afraid of saying how I am feeling. That is the kind of person I want to be, that is the kind of person I am trying to be”.

After Diana graduated with a diploma in engineering, she spontaneously decided to follow the life of a theatre actress. When she met a strange man in the streets of Tehran, she wanted to do something with creating, because according to her, “when you create you are one step closer to god, because god to me is the creator of our world.” This strange man, who seemed very interesting at first glance, invited Diana to a bar, where he suggested that she tried studying theatre. Surprisingly enough, her reply to this random suggestion was “I will”.

“The reason to why I agreed was simple,” she said when she saw my expression (who wouldn’t be shocked to hear someone agree to an offer this random?)  “Theatre was the only form of art that I didn’t know, so I took a risk and a big one.” At that time, as always, “theatre was one big mafia.” Every actress had to work very hard to be in this “mafia,” and Diana was no exception: “I was completely alone and I had to do it on my own, each time small roles, but I never said no,” she said, mind wandering in time. She paused before going on: “I was at a party dancing with a boy or a girl, I can’t really remember. Suddenly some guy, a famous director approached me and asked me to be in his play.  I knew how to dance, I had done ballet for ten years so the next day, when I went to the rehearsal I got the role.  I played for a year and a half and then they omitted me completely. Theatre is one big mafia as I said. For women it’s double that mafia”.

As it turned out the director had given Diana an ultimatum. She had to be in a relationship with him, and if she refused he would do everything to disable her from being a successful actress. When Diana categorically refused to be someone’s girlfriend for a spot in the world of acting, all roads that led to theatre were closed for her. Day by day she moved forward, from translating plays to mopping floors in the theatre, from mopping floors to playing small parts, from playing small parts to directing her own play here in Georgia.

After failing to persuade artists back home to work on a collaboration, Diana arrived in Georgia as a theatre director. She wanted to do something strange, something unordinary. “My childhood is tied with war,” she told me. “I want to show the world my opinion about war and say–please no war. We together can change everything.

“Think about it: when you say war the first things you see in your mind are soldiers, guns, bullets. These soldiers are men, they are the ones who have participated in all wars by force or by will. All wars are led by men: Hitler, Stalin. But what about women?  What about children? Who looks after them? What’s happening to them?  In the brochure we made for the play it says that the performance is about my childhood memories. My childhood memories are tied with war; my whole life is tied with war. Women are always in their houses, you will never find them in the first rows of the army, they are always in the back. What’s happening to them? I want to show this to the world. They are secondary persons in war, no one cares about them. In Iran-Iraqi war two million soldiers were killed from the Iranian side. After that Iranian government forced families to bear children. Who did it? Of course, women”.

In the performance that lasts for forty minutes, five different women appear. All five women with the exception of one have lived as neighbors in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia and the USA. Although these women may speak five different languages, they are no different from each other. They are killed because of wars, with no regards paid to their nationality. When I first saw the performance I was thrilled. Not knowing what to expect when walking into the hall, I was  amazed. Five women were dressed in all black, walking, while a man in the middle played a sad, sad melody on an instrument. Suddenly one woman started talking in a language I had no idea about. During the interview I shared my initial surprise, then Diana explained to me “you don’t need to understand Farsi to feel the emotions the woman is feeling. It’s important to feel because the emotions are important. For example, the Iranian character talks about chemical attacks. Sorry, but you don’t know what it’s like to experience a chemical attack. You don’t have any idea about people experiencing chemical warfare. You don’t need to understand what is she saying, because even if it was in your native language you wouldn’t understand, you can only feel.”  As she talked I realized that the idea had served its purpose, the play was truly unordinary; it was not only about women but about human beings and their nature in general.

Depicting women and their world during war impressed me and influenced the way I view war and aggression. Even in the modern world women are often considered what Diana calls “secondary class citizens.” In her country, Iran, “forty years ago a woman was just a decoration.” According to Diana when you walk in the streets of the capital of Iran, Tehran, you will never see an uncovered head of a woman. Banners and television advertisements never show women with long, shiny hair suggesting different shampoos. All you ever see are short-haired men advertising hair conditioners. When these men fell as young boys they were always told that “men never cry, crying is for girls.” Diana explained that many women and men oppose the patriarchy rooted into Iranian culture, but that these individuals are never free to declare their opinions publicly–why would they be when the law does not allow women to not wear scarfs?

Although in our interview Diana said that calling someone an artist is very hard, I truly believe that the life she has led for 24 years has been the one of an artist–the life of a strange artist who prefers to spend her evenings without internet and who prefers to live in a village next to people who have lived their lives in between the beautiful, rural landscapes of Iran.

#ReadWomen2014: Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness”

by Lux Cuellar

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock was released February 2nd 2014, two weeks before I began asserting my gender as a young woman. Essentially, the book came out right before I did. I was aching for shared experience, and Janet offered up her voice to be heard. This was the first narrative I read by a transgender woman written in the first person. It is a revolutionary voice for all the girls like us who are systematically denied a girlhood and humanity.

Redefining Realness provides an insight into trans womanhood free of the cis gaze. Unapologetic about the medical transition that she is often reduced to, Janet Mock reveals an honest portrayal of the harsh and beautiful reality about the womanhood of trans women of color. Though transition is a major part of the book and Janet’s life, there was not the sensationalization of hormones and surgeries that you may find in media where other people are telling the stories of trans women. She discusses her navigation of the medical side of transition, and the hoops she had to jump through.

For her, Mock says, “the number one thing is to liberate the girls.” Janet’s unwavering courage in telling her own story has encouraged many others to tell their own personal narratives that would otherwise be silenced. She writes in her book, “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. I hope that my being real with you will help empower you to step into who you are and encourage you to share yourself with those around you.” Ayesha A. Siddiqi’s words come to mind when I think of Redefining Realness: “be the person you needed when you were younger.” Janet is being that person that she needed, and in the process of doing that, she’s become the person that I and so many other young women need.

References are a major part of the book. She refers to Their Eyes Were Watching God throughout Redefining Realness. Both books are about a path to womanhood, identity, love, and so much more. Pop culture references are also used. Mock compares herself to Britney Spears in one chapter, stating that she was “not a girl, and not yet a woman”. She also discusses how Beyonce empowered her as a young black woman growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii. The broad range of references the book contains, from Toni Morrison’s Sula to MTV’s The Hills, is all used effectively.

Janet Mock discusses issues that affect trans youth such as social transition in high school. Social transition is when a person begins to assert themselves as the gender that they identify with. This can include a change of name and gender presentation. Social transition can be treacherous waters to navigate as a youth. You often have to deal with not only opposition from students, but also faculty. When reading about what Janet went through, I saw a glimpse of my own high school experience.

Redefining Realness is a beautifully written memoir. I only brought two books with me to college, and this was one of them. In the fashion of a truly great book, you can read it over and over again and gain something new from it each time. It is a revelatory piece of work. I discovered things about myself and my identity after reading this. She helped me discover that my femininity was powerful. Mock states in her book, “[My vice principal] viewed my femininity as extra, as something that was forced and unnatural. Femininity in general is seen as frivolous. People often say feminine people are doing “the most,” meaning that to don a dress, heels, lipstick, and big hair is artifice, fake, and a distraction. But I knew even as a teenager that my femininity was more than just adornments; they were extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and my identity. My body, my clothes, and my makeup are on purpose, just as I am on purpose.”

Taylor Swift can’t shake off white privilege

by Celeste Montaño

The increasingly-familiar sight of a white woman twerking and objectifying black women is back on your screens, this time brought to you by Taylor Swift. On August 18, Swift released a new music video for the single “Shake It Off” to coincide with the announcement of her “first official pop album.” As a result of this initiative to explore new frontiers, Taylor finally took the plunge and allowed people of color a prominent role in her music video—a first in her eight-year career.

The new song is all about shaking off criticism and being yourself, so the video goes to great lengths to remind us that Taylor’s self is the dorky girl-next-door that doesn’t fit in. As she appropriates tries out different styles of dance and fashion, Taylor proves too rambunctious for ballet and too clumsy for interpretative dance. Things start getting weird when she suddenly attempts a B-boy look and has men of color striking tough-guy poses behind her, but it gets way worse a minute later. Taylor’s second attempt at an “edgy” and “urban” persona arrives in the form of cutoff shorts, fuchsia lipstick, and chunky gold jewelry. And animal print!

Of course there has to be animal print because this is when women of color enter the video. They dance in the background as Taylor tries to imitate them, except not really because she needs to make it obvious that she sucks at this twerking thing. You see, twerking isn’t as easy for Taylor as it is for the other dancers. Because twerking is sexual, and being sexual is easier for a black woman than it is for Taylor Swift.

It should be noted that not all the women in the scene are black. But by some funny coincidence, it’s a black woman who’s front and center in the video’s most recognizable scene: the bridge of twerking bodies. At this point, the camera gets so close that the women become nothing but legs and butts as a wide-eyed Taylor that crawls beneath them. It’s a black woman’s body that the camera features most prominently at this moment; it’s a black woman that Taylor gapes at unapologetically.

Unlike the white artists that surround themselves with black friends (in music videos, at least) and markers of black culture to prove they’re cool and a little bit dangerous, Taylor does the opposite. She surrounds herself with hip hop and breakdancing, but the point is to reject those things with a self-deprecating attitude. When we see Taylor goofily failing to twerk, she seems to be saying, “haha I’m such a white girl, this is so embarrassing,” which is actually code for “haha I fail at being sexual or dirty or threatening, I’m just innocent and endearing.”

Yet Taylor manages to act both innocent and sexy, particularly when she sings about “the fella over there with the hella good hair” who should “come on over, baby, we could shake, shake, shake.” Embodying both sides of the coin is a feat rarely achieved, though if anyone could do it, it would definitely be a white woman. But it’s only one of Taylor’s several balancing acts with in the video—like how she’s bad at ballet because she shakes her hips too much, but she’s bad at twerking because she doesn’t shake her hips enough. Like how she uses hip hop elements and the presence of people of color to prove her newfound edginess while also reassuring (white) America that she’s still sweet as apple pie.

It’s ironic that this video is supposed to set Taylor apart from pop stars like, say, Miley Cyrus. Taylor can’t twerk like Miley (supposedly) can. Taylor gets scared when black women twerk! It’s true, both Taylor and Miley dress up in stereotypically “street” clothing. And yes, both Taylor and Miley reduce their black dancers to a single body part. But it’s different! It’s not like both women are totally blinded by white privilege, not at all.

Just like Miley, Taylor waited for a very specific moment in her career to create a video that prominently features people of color and their art. This video never would’ve happened while Taylor was a teenage girl with teardrops on her guitar. To her, black art is inherently mature and rebellious. It only comes in handy when she needs to announce that she’s too tough to let criticism get to her; after all, the creators of black art are themselves strong, incapable of vulnerability, and impervious to pain, right?

It’s not surprising that Taylor Swift decided to go for a tough (but also fun and non-threatening!) attitude this time around, since she gets so much crap for being “too sensitive.” And yet there’s still a lot of people—namely studio executives and fans—who are willing to pay tons of money to hear about her feels. Meanwhile, a black or brown woman in Taylor’s quirky Keds would have a hard time making it in the industry. She wouldn’t be marketable because she wouldn’t be believable: women of color aren’t allowed to be sensitive or silly, and they certainly can’t be victims.

It’s the privilege to embody those characteristics that launched Taylor Swift’s multi-million dollar career. It’s the same privilege that will no doubt allow her to dismiss critiques of racism as just more “haters” while she keeps pretend-twerking and telling her listeners to shake it off. But what happens when you’re a black or brown girl being told to shake off the haters by the person perpetuating the hate?