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Research Blog: How does our approach to exercise affect our relationships with our bodies?

by Stephanie M. Anderson

I am not a runner – or at least I wasn’t. I grew up hating running for all of the obvious reasons: panting, chafing, blisters, short shorts. Frankly, I would have rather spent an hour at the dentist than run 2 miles. So when I completed the New York City Half Marathon this past spring, I was elated and honestly amazed that my body even had the capacity to run that far. I also felt more connected to my body than ever before.

Yet, one of the first comments a friend said to me after the race was, “Wow, you just burnt so many calories – you get to eat whatever you want today!”

Huh? I just pushed my body beyond its limits and she’s impressed with my burnt calorie count? I didn’t sign up for the race so I would lose weight (in fact, a number of people who train for marathons gain weight). I trained because I wanted a challenge, to experience what some have called the runner’s high, and to see if I could finally make peace with my ultimate nemesis, running.

But her comment got me thinking. Why do most women and girls run?

Look at any magazine stand and the fitness goals sold to female runners would tell you its about visible changes to our bodies: “Get Great Legs!” “Slim Down Shortcuts (‘tis the Season to Get Sexy!)”, “Look Hot, Stay Cool.” These taglines more often than not surround a picture of a woman mid-stride with her long hair flowing behind her, chiseled abs glistening, and an ear-to-ear smile. Tyranny of the thigh gap, anyone? Even if I had long hair, I certainly wouldn’t run with it DOWN, let alone wearing underwear-length spandex shorts. And who smiles when they run? I more often look like Shrek fighting his way to rescue Princess Fiona, while trying to ignore Donkey’s never-ending commentary. The point is that the images available to us communicate that running – and exercise more generally – is about changing how our bodies look, not about changing how we feel in them or what they are capable of accomplishing.

If so many of us exercise as a means to change how our bodies look, how does this affect our relationship to our bodies? We’ve discussed in many blogs that women often self-objectify, or come to see their bodies as objects, when they look at themselves from the outside. Research shows that self-objectification is bad for us: women who self-objectify are less satisfied with their bodies, have lower self-esteem, and have more symptoms of disordered eating. If we think about exercise as a project in which we seek to conquer, tear down, and rebuild our bodies, do we end up seeing ourselves as objects? If so, how does thinking this way shape our experiences with exercise more generally?

Researchers Ivanka Prichard and Marika Tiggemann[1] had similar questions. They wanted to know how self-objectification was related not only to the activities we choose to do (i.e., aerobic classes, weight training, yoga), but also to the actual reasons we exercise.  Do women who do aerobic exercise, like cardio training, self-objectify more than women who do more holistic forms of exercise, like yoga? Does it matter why women choose to exercise? For example, if women exercise to lose weight, do they self-objectify more than women who exercise to feel good in their bodies?

To answer their questions, these researchers asked 571 Australian women to complete a questionnaire about their participation at fitness centers. These women answered questions about the types of exercise they do, their reasons for exercising, and also completed a self-objectification scale.

What did they find? Perhaps not surprisingly, Prichard and Tiggemann found that women who spend more time doing cardio-based exercises tend to self-objectify more than women who spend more time in yoga-based exercises. However, they found that these relationships depended on the women’s motivations for exercising. So, women doing cardio self-objectified more only when they exercised to lose weight, get toned, or improve their attractiveness. Women who had more holistic reasons to exercise (i.e., to feel good in their bodies or be healthy), self-objectified less, regardless of their exercise activity.

What does this mean? Well, first it means that some activities may focus our attention more on our appearance than others (i.e., cardio compared to yoga), which can in turn cause us to self-objectify. However, how we think about exercise is really important. Instead of focusing on how many calories we burn or inches we lose from exercising, we should try to focus more on what our bodies are capable of and how we feel in our bodies once they’re in motion. Trying bench press for the first time, mastering that new swim stroke, or playing soccer with friends can make us feel really good. Exercise doesn’t have to be something we feel we should do so that our bodies can look a certain way; it should be something we want to do because it’s fun and enjoyable.

I just did the crazy thing of signing up for a marathon (yep, a full one this time). My goal is to embrace my body along the journey. It is going to hurt and the training will definitely be hard. My muscles may burn and my joints may scream, but deep in my pounding heart I know that for me, running is not about winning a race to a perfect body; it’s not about being “allowed” to eat a bigger lunch. As I stride toward the finish line, I want to really and truly feel my body in action. I want to feel the pride of an athlete who has really tested what her body is capable of – not what her body looks like. Because after all, being connected to my body isn’t a look, it’s a feeling.


[1] Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness centre environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of sport and exercise9(6), 855-866.

 

As a girl with chronic illness, The Fault in Our Stars isn’t just a love story

by Montgomery Jones

I first read The Fault in Our Stars in February of 2012. As a nerdfighter and avid book reader, I make it a point to read books by my favorite authors hot off the presses.  At that time there was not a huge following for the book, so there were no whispers or spoilers about the ending.  I started reading it on a plane and finished reading it in a salon, where I burst out crying when I read the last page.  I closed the book, took a deep breath and tried to answer my stylist as she questioned my tears.  The Fault in Our Stars touched me in more ways than one.

TFiOS (as many of the fans call it) is about Hazel Grace Lancaster,  a 16 year old with thyroid cancer.  Diagnosed when she was in middle school, Hazel spends most of her time at home rereading her favorite book.  Being inside Hazel’s somewhat cynical head reminded me so much of my own, as her thoughts were what my thoughts had been  just a few years before.  Hazel attends a support group where she meets a young man named Augustus Waters, who has been in remission for over a year.  TFiOS has such avid fans mostly  because of the relationship between Hazel and Augustus.  It truly is beautiful and magical.  Augustus is everything that awkward girl in the back of your class could ask for.  He’s essentially perfect, and he seeks Hazel out only to tell her how beautiful and wonderful she is.  In no way am I bashing this love plot–it’s what draws so many in!  But, having never been in love, I didn’t relate to that part of the story as much. When Augustus came along it was almost like a fantasy to me, one that I enjoyed but wasn’t quite able to connect with. Instead I found comfort in the scenes of people staring and asking questions, the hardships of being a young person with such an illness, and the loneliness that comes with being “the sick kid.”

People do write about kids with chronic illnesses–John Green isn’t the first to have done so and he knows that.  But never have I read a book I felt more connected to.  As a 20-year-old woman battling lupus and arthritis, as well as other illnesses that I’ve vanquished (lung problems etc.–I like to pretend they are evil villains I must defeat), I’ve spent almost half my life fighting off…well, myself.  Lupus is a disease in which my immune system is attacking my body.  My joints, muscles, kidneys, skin,and  blood are just some of the victims of this horrible chronic illness, which is complicated by depression and anxiety.  I used to jokingly say that Lupus was my boyfriend because my whole life centered on it.  I was pulled out of school for long periods of time, I had very little human contact besides my family and my doctors, and most of my down time was spent reading and watching crappy reality shows.  Sometimes I would just sit there and question how I got to this point.  I have always been a straight A student, never anything less than a B, I was very outgoing and had many friends, and I prided myself on being active.  How did I get to that point?

When I was 13 years old, my wrist started aching.  I had to wear a brace and my mom said it was just part of my constant growth spurts.  All the kids asked me what happened, and I said “nothing” because nothing had happened. I vividly remember one recess, some kid teasing and saying I was faking, but I knew the pain was real.  Pictures of me at Disney Land when I was 8 show me wearing an ankle brace for excruciating pain that came out of nowhere.  Sometimes, albeit not as often, my joints just stopped working.  They would swell and ache so much that I could not move them.  But these incidents were spread out enough over the years we just called them growing pains, because I’ve always been tall.

Freshmen year of high school I was in advanced math, Spanish II, and an advanced English class.  I was on the swim team and had to be at practice before and after school, not to mention school clubs I was in–I love clubs!  It was a lot, to say the least.  Perhaps it was the stress, but about that time, fall of my freshmen year, was when I started to get sick.  I have vivid memories of days with the pain even though I was sick for months at a time with little to no relief.  One day I tried to pull myself out of the pool and I just couldn’t.  My wrists felt like I broke them.  I started crying, my tears falling in to the chlorinated water, my cheeks enflamed with embarrassment.  No one knew what was going on, I didn’t know what was going on.  Those three memories; Disney Land, 8th grade recess, and the pool are forever engrained in my mind.  I think of them as the warnings of the storm to come.

I lost the ability to interact with people my age; I either had a walker or cane always by my side; I was failing everything in school and life, and I had no idea why my body hated me. The Fault in Our Stars shows the isolation associated with disease so well.  In the book, Hazel encounters a girl she used to be friends with, and I remember that feeling.  Trying to discuss gossip or football games, things you are no longer a part of.  It’s truly awkward for all parties involved.  I can recall–and this is such a painful memory–but I remember begging some friends to hang out with me and being denied, hearing excuse after excuse. People I used to have sleepovers with were now too afraid to be around the girl who had spasm attacks and had to be carried out of the classroom by security or the paramedics (if she even came to school at all).  What’s more sad is when I stopped trying to interact with friends,  shen I no longer wanted to be around anyone.  That’s the opposite of who I was pre-illness.

It took years for me to get diagnosed because lupus is a tricky disease.  It took visits to the emergency room, several 911 calls, almost a year’s worth of school missed, and a loss of almost all my friends before I was finally diagnosed at Cleveland Clinic.  The doctor went over my  large file—x-rays, medical records, countless test results–for about two hours before finally give me a diagnosis.  No one wants to have lupus, but in a practical world, I am happy to have been diagnosed so as to move forward and treat this awful disease rather than be misdiagnosed (as I had been) or told that I was lying (as I had been) at a previous hospital.  Lupus is no stranger to the misdiagnosis problem. I have spoken to many fell #spoonies (as we refer to ourselves) on Twitter, and it’s common to be told that we have fibromyalgia (a rheuomatoligcal disease) or that we’re exaggerating, because there is no one test to determine lupus.  I am now treated at University of Michigan hospitals where I am happy to say I am on the mend.  Lupus means “wolf” in Latin, and certainly feels like a wild animal attacking, but if you can make a clean breakaway for it then you can live a very healthy life.

When I found out I had lupus, I thought all would be well once I was treated, but then we realized there was also major anxiety and depression that I was battling, so my mom reached out to lupus organizations that could help.  Like Hazel, I went to a support group. But instead of meeting Prince Charming, I met a room full of women (90% of people with systemic lupus erythematosus are women) ages 50 and up who, on my fourth visit, told me how they had all had strokes or this and that and warned me that it could happen to me too.  I never went back.  That’s what I mean about the book being almost like a fantasy in some aspects.  Obviously I would love to meet a prince charming at support group–or even people in the same phase of life!–but my unfortunately my age just ostracized me from the group.

I went through extensive therapy at a rehab establishment, Milestones, where I completed physical therapy, mental therapy, art therapy, and therapeutic recreation. With the help of a teacher there I graduated high school only a year later than I was supposed to.  At Milestones I met a lot of kids with debilitating diseases.  It was good to know I was not alone in my plight.

Books saved me from myself and Milestones revived me.  I am happy to say I’m in remission for the most part.  I get occasional flares, but nothing like the dark days.  Anxiety and depression are still major issues, but they’re nothing I am ashamed of anymore.  I have been through a lot, and that can’t be fixed as easily (not that lupus had a quick cure!).  I am taking 20+ pills a day; I struggle with my memory and weight gain; I’ve had had numerous side effects from the pills that keep me going. They’re both a blessing and a curse.  Sometimes I think about people in my predicament who don’t have access to doctors or have a team behind them like I did and it breaks my heart.  I barely made it even with all that help.

I can’t write about this and not mention the young woman who inspired John Green to write TFIOS.  Esther Grace Earl was a nerdfighter, a writer, and a friend of John’s, and she died from thyroid cancer when she was 16.  She shared only a middle name with Hazel (they are NOT the same people) but through her death, she has united so many fellow sick kids. She shattered the isolation spell and opened dialogues about kids and young adults with chronic and terminal illnesses.  The only thing I share with Esther is a birthday (I am exactly one year older), but I can’t thank her or her wonderful family enough for telling her story through her own words via the book This Star Won’t Go Out.  Esther was a real person with a real disease who lived life to the fullest. She had her bad days I’m sure, but I can’t help but look up to her and her graciousness as a saint to those plagued with disease.

The Fault in Our Stars means different things to different people, but that’s the beauty of stories.  They can touch countless lives.  Lupus is the disease you cant see “but you don’t look sick” is an actual thing we #spoonies commonly quote.  But as I step out in the sun little by little, hike up inactive volcanoes step by step, and eventually graduate college bit by bit, I hope to live a life where wolves are the last thing on my mind.

“If I don’t say anything, I feel rude,” and other experiences of street harassment in Paris

by Annemarie McDaniel and Anya Josephs

Annemarie and Anya are both SPARK bloggers, in Paris studying abroad for the summer! We’ve both had magical experiences here, but we’ve also noticed significant street harassment. We wanted to write this blog together to talk about the ways we’ve experienced harassment here differently than back home in the US–Annemarie goes to college in New Haven, Connecticut and is from San Diego, California, and Anya studies in New York City and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Annemarie: I’ve definitely experienced a new range of street harassment and comments than what I’m used to back home, from things that are clearly street harassment to getting asked out when I’m walking down the road. When I was getting followed late at night by a biker who was yelling at me, I could tell pretty clearly that it was street harassment, but when a guy on the street in broad daylight says that I’m so beautiful and he would die for a date with me, I feel more conflicted.

Anya: I feel like I’ve had a similar range of different experiences. In New York I feel like I’m pretty good at identifying what’s street harassment, mostly because almost all of the things strange men say to me on the street are pretty crude and pretty explicitly sexual, and I know how to react to that. I can just be like, oh, I’m being street harassed, and move on. But here, partially because of the language barrier, and partially because I’m moving in a culture that I’m not really part of, I feel like sometimes when strange men talk to me on the street, that’s more of a sincere gesture. I feel like I’ve actually been asked out on the street here, where in NYC I don’t think any of the men who shout on the streets really wanted to take me on a date.

Annemarie: Another big difference I’ve noticed is in big cities, really often, it’s comments that are not only crude, but by much older men, potentially married men, whereas here in Paris, it’s more often guys around my age really asking me for my number or out to dinner.

Anya: I’ve noticed that too, and the other thing is that in New York it’s almost exclusively groups of men, and that makes it much clearer that they’re trying to be intimidating, whereas here it’s pretty often a single guy.

Annemarie: There definitely are times in Paris where guys will be creepy like they are in the United States. When I was walking home late one night, one of those pedicabs pulled up next to me. The driver said I was beautiful and offered me a free ride home. I declined, I lived less than a block away, and I didn’t want to get on this guy’s cab. He followed me the block and a half home, the rest of the way, yelling how I didn’t know what I was missing out on, how he was a great guy, and how all he wanted was my number. He only turned around when he saw me go in the door of my dorm, his peticab parked right next to the curb as I walked in. That’s clearly not ok! Being followed home is terrifying. Women have to worry about being assaulted for denying men’s advances, like we’ve seen recently in the news this past year when a young girl was stabbed for rejecting a prom date, the Isla Vista shooting, and the many more cases that don’t even receive news coverage.

Anya: I’ve had a similar experience. It started out as one of those weird compliments that I didn’t know how to react to, and then when I ignored the guy, mostly because I was in a hurry, he wound up following me the rest of the block, and then trying to physically prevent me from walking away from him- he sort of stood in front of me and tried to block off the sidewalk so I couldn’t get past him. Luckily it was broad daylight, and there were lots of other people around, so it wasn’t super creepy, but it was still obviously a little nerve-wracking. As opposed to just now- while I was writing this, in a café, I was looking at this group of guys wearing sort of medieval costumes and one of them blew me a kiss, but didn’t say or do anything else. And I feel like that’s fine- I mean, I don’t feel like no man should ever look at or speak to a woman in public- but I also feel less sure of how to react than with really explicit harassment, like the getting followed or the stuff I’m more used to in New York, where I just ignore it and walk away.

Annemarie: It’s the same for me. Recently, when I was at the flea market, a group of friends and I got multiple individual comments saying how beautiful we were.

Anya: And in the States I feel like you usually only get talked to if you’re a woman alone.

Annemarie: The men said how “they want to sell us their heart, for life,” and other cheesy, but kind comments. It seems in Paris, asking a stranger for a date is less abnormal than in the States, and especially because I’m single, I feel an obligation to acknowledge their nice compliment and their request. Honestly, when I feel like I’m in a safe environment, it’s nice to be complimented.

Anya: I mean, the other day, in the same spot where I got followed- right in front of the market by my host family’s apartment- a guy who was sort of hanging around by the market, just like that creepy follower guy was, saw me approaching, did this cute little bow thing, and said (in French) that I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life. I tried to just ignore him, because I’ve been told that’s the best way to discourage that kind of attention, but honestly I couldn’t help but smile a little. I certainly wasn’t interested in this guy, but it was nonetheless sort of nice to get such an elaborate compliment. I’ve also been clearly genuinely asked out a couple of times- one afternoon I was reading in the Tuiliries Jardin, by the Louvre, and I had one guy ask me to take a picture of him, and after I did he invited me to take a walk around the garden with him, and the same afternoon I gave another man directions to Montmartre, and he invited me to come along and have dinner with him there. The nice guy who works in the market, and was very friendly when I was trying to figure out how European money works, has asked me out for coffee every week for the last three weeks. Unlike in New York, where men are talking at me just to talk, often with the intention of making me feel uncomfortable, here in Paris, I feel like if I said yes to one of these guys, they would actually take me out on a date. Obviously, for me, unlike you, that’s not really a consideration, since I’m in a relationship, but it does alter things. I feel like I’m a little rude for just ignoring these guys, but I also feel like if I acknowledge them, I’m taking a risk that they could decide to follow me or assault me.

Annemarie: The way that I remind myself that it’s acceptable to ignore these guys is remembering a few things. First, that I’m a tourist, and as kind as these guys may seem, if I was stranded somewhere in Paris, I wouldn’t have the language skills or knowledge of the city to feel I could get back safely on my own. Furthermore, my French cell is unreliable on calling and texting, so if I needed to call for help, I don’t know if a friend would pick up the phone, or what number to call the police at. And lastly, I sometimes feel in a safe enough environment where I can appreciate a genuinely nice compliment, but sometimes I can’t. Sometimes it’s late at night, or I’ve been crudely harassed earlier in the day, or I am far away from a neighbor I know, and it’s ok to not feel comfortable with a stranger approaching me. I wish I lived in a world where I felt safe receiving a compliment anywhere at anytime, but that’s just not the case.

Anya: Very true. And I’ve been followed, after just saying “merci” or whatever. But then if I don’t say anything I feel rude. It’s seriously a lose-lose situation. I think no matter what country you’re in, there’s basically no ‘right’ way to respond, because you’re being put in a position you never should have been in in the first place.

Who is the World Cup for?

by Brenda Guesnet

The FIFA World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world. The 32 best national male soccer teams compete, attracting an audience of more than 26 million people worldwide and costing billions of dollars every time it is staged. This time, the host country of the cup was Brazil, and advertisers and media outlets were happy to produce a variety of world-cup themed images in order to cash in on the soccer craze. Whether it’s beer, cars, lingerie, fast food or soft drinks, companies were eagerly drawing upon nationalist sentiments as well as staging their products within a Brazilian wonderland to attract millions of soccer fans to their brand.

These two strands – nationalist symbolism and the romanticization of Brazil as an exotic and beautiful playground – tie into another popular trope used in the World Cup imagery: that of the beautiful, scantly-clothed woman present merely as something to be looked at in order to complete the straight male soccer fans’ wet dream. While most companies focus on the male players themselves, producing hyper-masculine, ultra-serious advertisements, those that include women will often do so in a highly sexualized manner.

Take for instance the Heineken banner that many bars in Amsterdam placed in their windows to not only signal that they are a Heineken selling-point, but also their enthusiasm for the World Cup and the national team. Two men taking a selfie in their Holland jerseys form the centerpiece. They lead an all-orange (the Dutch national color) crowd where women in the background are destined to wear bikinis and tight dresses rather than soccer jerseys. A darker-skinned woman is inexplicably perched high up in full Brazilian carnival attire, strikingly framed by a traditional Amsterdam balcony and strictly confined to this space where her body becomes a spectacle.

Then there were the T- shirts the sports brand Adidas released on occasion of the World Cup. One showed a thin woman in a bikini posing in front of a Rio de Janeiro landscape, bearing the words “Lookin’ to Score”. Another showed the phrase “I <3 Brazil”, with the heart shaped like a woman’s behind in a thong. The shirts were retracted when the Brazilian tourism board complained that they promoted sexual tourism, and the case illustrates Brazilian women’s ongoing struggle of being seen as hypersexual and readily available to men.

In the context of this years’ World Cup, these are only two examples of many instances where Brazilian women are ‘exported’ as visual commodities, displayed in an ultra-sexualized, exoticized manner for the pleasure of male soccer fans around the world. This polished image becomes even more disconcerting considering the state violence that has surrounded the tournament in Brazil. Just as Brazil tries everything to cover up the mass evictions and police violence surrounding the tournament to present the country as an exotic, happy, and equal state (in the spirit of “a copa de todos”, the cup for everyone), the portrayal of women is often geared towards confirming stereotypes about Brazil and using sexualized and picture-perfect images of women to make Brazil more attractive as a host country and as a destination. The message is clear: affluent, mostly foreign men are the protagonists of the event, while women are  secondary supporters present primarily for their heightened pleasure.

Although the Brazilian tourism board’s reaction to the Adidas shirts was commendable, the mass-marketed images of Brazilian carnival, where women’s bodies literally become a national attraction, have strongly fed the cliché of the beautiful and exotic Brazilian woman – which has been welcomed by international advertisers on the occasion of the World Cup. Representation matters, and hypersexualization of Brazilian women marketed towards tourists has a very real and violent impact on the country’s women’s wellbeing. Child trafficking is a massive problem in Brazil, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the 2014 World Cup have reportedly made the issue worse. Their disposable income and willingness to exploit vulnerable girls leads to an increase in demand for cheap, illegal sex transactions with children – and advertisers share responsibility in this when they portray Brazil as a sexual wonderland.

I happen to enjoy watching soccer, along with millions of other girls and women. So when will advertisers acknowledge us as equal supporters of the team, and not as accessories to the “real”, male, soccer fans? When will they show us playing soccer not in our underwear or high heels but with sneakers and jerseys? And way more importantly,  will FIFA  ever startliving up to its proclaimed “duty to society . . . to improve the lives of young people and their surrounding communities”, instead of unlawfully destroying the homes of impoverished communities and endorsing deadly violence against protestors? So much has gone wrong with this year’s World Cup – if FIFA and other brands take a step forward and reject sexist, classist, and racist policies and stereotypes, perhaps the World Cup has a chance to become a more inclusive and less violent event.

 

Research blog: To see or not to see? That’s the question

by Marisa Ragonese

I had a baby three summers ago, and she’s been hanging around me a lot ever since.  One of the best parts about this whole kid thing, at least for me, is the radical shift from how men used to look at and treat me, and the way they do now. Most notably, the dudes I encounter in the day-to-day have generally stopped ogling my body, complimenting my body, insulting my body or otherwise harassing me. NOW they either look me in the eye when they talk to me or, if they’re walking past me on the street, they smile politely or ignore me completely.  It’s amazing.  Since I found the constant experience of being reduced to and evaluated according to the size of my breasts and body parts really degrading and psychologically disorientating, it’s been one of the coolest and unexpected perks of motherhood, this invisibility cloak, this pass, this limited access to being a human in the eyes of men. Sometimes I even feel like a whole person.

Despite my newfound freedom from the harassment I used to experience on the regular, I still worry about losing my immunity, I still worry about all of the girls and women who don’t feel free to move through public spaces.  I still wonder: why do men do it?  Why do men who have lots of women in their lives, who may even believe that they see these women as full human beings, objectify women? Why do so many women act like it’s normal or even desirable? I mean, what’s really going on? I think that one of the coolest things about feminist research is its ability to pull sexism apart and take a really close look at why it’s happening without all of those “boys will be boys” and “you know how women and men REALLY are” stereotypes muddying the waters and blocking the airwaves. I mean, call me uptight, but I like the truth. And that’s why I’m obsessed with research.

Here at the SPARK research blog, we dedicate a fair amount of time to writing about research on objectification. So, stereotypes aside, why do people objectify women’s bodies? Researchers Gervais, Holland and Dodd[1] decided it was high time to answer this question, and it’s awesome that they thought to do it, because there’s barely any research on why so many men (and women) look at women’s body parts in gross and sexualizing ways that often don’t involve paying attention to our faces.

Research already teaches us that people tend to look at someone’s face when meeting and interacting with them because faces tell us a lot about who someone is: the tribes they run with, why they’re talking to or approaching us, and their general physical, mental and emotional state. Because someone’s face tells us so much about a person, we also tend to linger on it. However, according to objectification research (and many women’s personal experiences) (including mine) there’s a lot of lecherous non-face-looking going on all the time, especially during tank-top season. (Or any day you’re walking around all female and stuff….).

Psychologists argue that people can focus on appearances (which means paying more attention to someone’s body) or focus on their personality (by focusing on their face)- it’s a choice, and if people (men AND women) are instructed to size a woman up based on her body, they’ll objectify her more. If they’re encouraged to see how she measures up based on her personality, they’ll objectify less. So, the researchers wanted to know whether people would still objectify a woman’s body as much if they were instructed to focus on and evaluate her personality.

They did an experiment to see if they were right. They showed college students 10 pictures of women, and asked some of them what they thought about their personalities, and others what they thought about their appearances.  They tracked the college students’ eye movements so they could measure where people looked and for how long.  And you know what?  Their hunch was right.

They found that the study participants (men AND women) looked at women’s faces more and their chests and waists less when they were asked to focus on the personality of a woman in the photo.  In other words, their study confirmed other research that found that when people are interested in actually getting to know someone, they focus less on her body and more on her face. To me, this is such an important finding because it illustrates that those stereotypes about men “needing” to evaluate women in sexually objectifying ways – that they just can’t help it (it’s nature, biological, etc.) – are total propaganda crap.  It’s more like: when men (AND women) are taught to evaluate the attractiveness of women all the time, like we are through our culture, it creates the conditions that lead to sexually objectifying women. So it’s not that men can’t help it. It’s more like a culture of sexualization is HELPING all of us to objectify women by training men (AND women) to always evaluate a woman’s attractiveness rather than her personality.  We’re a bunch of social face-watchers, people. The leering isn’t natural- it’s learned.

So the next time you’re dealing with someone who insists on watching your chest, or someone who insists that men can’t help themselves, how’s about re-directing their gaze right over here, to the scientific evidence that shows that we look and see women in sexual ways because we’re being taught to?   Because you shouldn’t have to have a baby or an invisibility cloak or be a part of any tribe or race or class, and you shouldn’t have to fight a culture of lies based in stereotypes and myths.

You shouldn’t have to do anything at all, in order to be treated like a human being.

And hey- don’t forget to give them bell hooks’ phone number.



[1] Gervais, S. J., Holland, A. M., & Dodd, M. D. (2013). My eyes are up here: The nature of the objectifying gaze toward women. Sex roles, 69(11-12), 557-570.

 

SCOTUS’s Hobby Lobby Decision is Dangerous for Girls

by Lande Watson

Every morning when I wake up, I put on my feminist suit of armor, ready to face a day of sexism and misogyny. As a girl activist fighting for gender equality I always knew there would be plenty of issues to tackle in my lifetime. How will sexism impact a successful female presidential candidate in 2016? (Knock on wood). How can we get more women represented in growing job sectors especially in STEM Fields? Why are young girls less likely to pursue a career in politics?

But there are some battles I never thought I would have to fight in the year 2014.

Birth control became publicly available in the 1960s in the US. In the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting the use of contraceptives violated the constitutional “right to marital privacy” and a 1972 case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, expanded the right to possess and use contraceptives to unmarried couples. I would not be born for another 27 years.

A few months ago, I truly believed the only thing that would stop me from getting birth control if I decided to take it, would be embarrassment from telling my slightly too smiley pediatrician. I assumed that the ability to access a wide range of reproductive health care services was a given for both me and my friends, born almost 3 decades after the first birth control pill became available in 1960.

The US Supreme Court

 

And then five men messed it up. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court—or rather, five of its men, Justices Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Kennedy—ruled in favor of a business’s right to impose its religious beliefs on its employees. Hobby Lobby no longer has to provide its employees with the full range of birth control options guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act, because their religion says so.

And now, the questions about birth control increase. It’s no longer just “which birth control option is the best for me and my body?” It’s “where can I work where I won’t be denied birth control?” or “how am I going to pay for this medication if my job won’t cover it?” Aren’t these the questions and concerns the Affordable Care Act was supposed to address with the Birth Control Mandate?

When I woke up to a world where my access to reproductive health care was just a little less secure and a little more subject to the whim of my future employers, I was disappointed and upset.

The ruling offended me as an activist and as a woman.

Because there are so many important battles to be fought. Before the SCOTUS ruling, I thought I had my basic rights to reproductive health care covered. Sure, if I decide to go to graduate school in Louisiana or work on a political campaign in Texas (and lots of other places, 21 states have anti-choice governments) someday, my ability to access a safe and legal abortion will be in jeopardy. And with the Buffer Zone ruling made earlier in the week, it is clear that my ability to safely and comfortably access an abortion is not 100% secure. But this. This monumental mistake made by 5 men on the Supreme Court is on another level of upsetting.

The idea that five male justices, none of whom have ever had an I-forgot-to-take-my-pill-yesterday freak out, made a decision that could potentially impact my ability to access health care options is ridiculous and offensive. They say it was about protecting religious beliefs, but was it really?

Hobby Lobby’s 401(k) plan “has millions of dollars invested in funds that own the companies that make birth control methods including Plan B, the so-called ‘morning after’ drug.” The authors of the majority opinion suggested that the ruling narrowly applied to Hobby Lobby (just a few days after the ruling it was proved that it was not so narrow after all), but as Ruth Bader Ginsburg aptly asked in her dissent, “”Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”

from Obama's facebook page

So, if this ruling isn’t really about the importance of deeply held religious belief, then what is it about? It’s about controlling women’s bodies. Being a teenage girl is hard. You’re still subject to your parents’ decisions, your friends are all changing and boys are just plain weird. But the newly layered icing on the cake, the real kicker, is the government and businesses trying to control your body. That’s right. Now, not only does your mom get to control what you wear (“sweety, that skirt really is way too short”), but the men of the Supreme Court and future employers get to control your access to a full range of reproductive health care services.

An important piece of healthy sexuality, and growing up for that matter, involves making decisions that are right for your body. And taking the step to access birth control, if it’s what’s right for you, is part of that. Threatening women’s access to basic reproductive health care challenges healthy sexuality, and general health as well (birth control is used to treat a wide variety of illnesses).

The argument made in the Hobby Lobby Case was about religious beliefs and the inaccurate idea that birth control is somehow an abortifacient. But denying women access to birth control is also about vilifying and discouraging women who might want to have sex and not get pregnant. Women take birth control for a wide range of health reasons, but they also take it because [shocker!] women like sex. Discouraging female sexuality while okay-ing male sexuality (Viagra will still be covered by Hobby Lobby’s health care plan) is sexist and promotes false notions that girls don’t or shouldn’t like sex. When birth control is seen as a “lesser health care item” (or not considered a health care item at all), it sends a dangerous message that my right to decide if and when I want to have a family (or if I don’t) is not a right at all, but is constantly at the whim of my employer. And that as a girl, my body and my health are of less importance than my boss’s religious beliefs.

activists at George Washington University

These messages are out there, but they are untrue and unacceptable. The Hobby Lobby case started a battle I never thought I would have to fight in 2014, but I’m here, and I’m ready to fight.