We live in a time when the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is being targeted by his own party (via the Republican Principles PAC) with a depressingly accurate TV advertisement that quotes the various derogatory expressions Donald Trump has used over the years to describe women.
It’s also a time when a Lane Bryant ad featuring “plus size” woman resulted in a backlash—including two major networks, ABC and NBC, refusing to run it.
This means it’s time to address an age-old issue: the objectification of women, and its resulting impact on women in particular, and society in general.
Sure, there are lots of examples of how badly some nations around the world treat half of the population—horrors like genital mutilation/female circumcision; burning women alive who are suspected of violating cultural norms like having extra-marital sex (including having been raped); the sex trafficking of young girls; and practices like arranged marriages of minor females, a lack of access to birth control, culturally accepted “domestic” violence, not allowing women to start businesses or work outside of their homes, a lack of education for girls, etc. etc. etc. While practices such as these make us wring our hands with a sense of outrage and frustration at not knowing how to begin to fix it all, we tend to overlook the objectification of women right here at home—and its impact as a violation of American principles of equality and dignity.
Issues like a lack of equal pay for equal work, and women being denied positions of power in major industries, are all too often met with sound-bites about women taking time off to have children (in an industrialized nation that still offers no mandated paid leave), or choosing careers that are about taking care of others rather than pursuing big money. We also often here how much progress has already been made, with claims that we can’t change too fast, or that women are surpassing men in getting higher education, so we’ll see much more of a payoff in the future.
I, for one, am tired of waiting. Women are still fighting sexism, objectification based on appearance and sexuality, and disparate standards for judging performance. (“She’s too pushy/loud/strident,” some say about Hillary Clinton, while when a male politician acts similarly, they say: “He’s a strong leader.”) I was someone who raised these issues more than 40 years ago, and it’s disheartening to see young women—assuming that equality would await them out in the “real world”—realizing that, in fact, little has really changed.
Let’s start with the networks turning down the ad from Lane Bryant, a women’s clothing retailer specifically catering to “plus size” women. The ad features a range of women of various sizes celebrating the female form. Each shares what makes her proud about her body, with tag lines like: “This body was made for being bold and powerful”; “This body proves them wrong”; “This body is made for life”; and a new mother saying, “This body was made for love,” while breastfeeding her infant.
NBC claimed the ad violated a “broadcast indecency guideline” standard. The Federal Communications Commission says indecency is “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium (my emphasis), sexual or excretory organs or activities.” According to TMZ, a 2010 ad from Lane Bryant was also turned down by ABC and Fox.
By comparison, networks have no problem with showing promos for the Victoria’s Secret annual “fashion show,” or beer ads featuring scantily clad women. We see women’s bodies used to sell everything from cars to tools to food. We have dolls in leather miniskirts with feather boas and thigh-high boots marketed specifically to girls, and thong panties for little girls with slogans like “eye candy.” We see Victoria’s Secret models dressed like angels strutting down the runway on primetime TV.
But we seldom see women’s bodies as they really are. According to WebMD, the average American woman today wears a size 14 and weighs between 140 and 150 pounds. By comparison, over the past 20 years, fashion model sizes have dropped from size 8 to size 0.
A new campaign, Stand Up, is specifically focusing on the way girls are constantly encouraged to be body-conscious, resort to elective plastic surgery, and flaunt themselves as if equality includes risking being labeled a slut. (Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.) The campaign launched an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures from people all over the world, and features men also “standing up” for the women in their lives—mothers, sisters, daughters, friends.
In part, the petition says: “Every day women are bombarded with advertisements aimed at making them feel insecure about their bodies, in the hope that they will spend money on products that will supposedly make them happier and more beautiful. All this does is perpetuate low self-esteem among women who are made to feel that their bodies are inadequate and unattractive because they do not fit into a narrow standard of beauty. It contributes to a culture that encourages serious health problems such as negative body image and eating disorders.”
Victoria’s Secret, which took heat for their “The Perfect Body” ad featuring typically skinny models, responded to the backlash by changing their tag line to “A Body for Everybody”—but they didn’t change the visual image.
The American Psychological Association released a report in 2007 addressing the “sexualization of girls in the media,” and the result was that women and girls are not seen as fully functioning individuals, but rather judged primarily as sexual objects. This has an impact on boys and how they see girls, and on men and how they view women in society. The APA report says, “The findings proved girls are portrayed in a sexual manner … that implies sexual readiness. … With these sexist, stereotypical models of femininity constantly being perpetuated in the media, the negative implications affecting the mental, emotional and physical wellness of girls are many.”
According to the APA, “Sexualization of women and girls can also have a negative impact on boys and men.” Objectifying girls and women, and even sex itself, has become integral to definitions of masculinity, and “these beliefs may jeopardize men’s ability to form and maintain intimate relationships with women.” This applies also to how men see women in the professional world.
A joke currently making the rounds is that Caitlin Jenner is the only person clamoring to be woman over the age of 50—a clear reference to the fact that women “of a certain age” are no longer considered desirable. Ray Moore, head of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament held in Indian Wells, publicly apologized and then resigned after saying the women of professional tennis are “very, very lucky” they “don’t make any decisions,” and should thank men for their success, despite all their years of hard work and outstanding athleticism. He describes these powerful women as “physically attractive and competitively attractive”—implying their looks are an integral element in their success on the court.
Which brings me to Donald Trump’s descriptions of women as quoted by the Republican Principles PAC ad. Trump’s actual quotes include his disparaging characterization of GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina (“Who would vote for that face?”); comments about Rosie O’Donnell (“a fat pig” and “a dog”); his ongoing animosity toward Fox broadcaster Megyn Kelly (“blood coming out of her … wherever” and “a bimbo”), and general comments like: “For a person who is flat-chested, it’s hard to be a 10”; “It doesn’t matter what they write (about you) as long as you’ve got a beautiful piece of ass”; and my personal favorite, said to a contestant on The Apprentice, “That must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.”
Trump’s response to CNN when asked about all this? “Some of my words are just show business … Nobody respects women more than I do.”
Yeah, and some of my best friends are (fill in the blank). This man could very well become president—proving that women will continue to be objectified until we all, women and men, speak out and stand up.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.