When Does Admiration Become Objectification?

Sunset in Warwickshire
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This is a post that I’ve been writing in my head for a long time now, and if I’m honest I’m still not sure that I’m going to be able to do the topic justice. Perhaps there is no right or wrong answer, or the topic is too fraught with contradiction, opinion and attitudes. Anyway, here is my rambling speculation. Debates in the comments please…

There has been a lot of conversation in the press over the past year about objectification. It’s an issue all too present on the TV, in magazines. Interesting, thoughtful, clever people – scientists and artists and thinkers – feature in their pages. All too often, however, they are there purely for looks. Good or bad, stunners or “fugly”, good enough or not trying hard enough, I read article after article that never ventures away from the visual. Judging, commending – objectifying.

I think it is sad that so much of our efforts go on looks, whilst there is so much else of note to pay attention to. If someone is saying or doing something brilliant, then I think the way they look is irrelevant.  I don’t see why it matters. We live in a digital age – people should be able to announce amazing things anonymously if they wished for chrissake – why do looks even come into it?

However, I worry that some people are turning this idea on its head. That appreciating looks, even when appropriate, is seen as terrible. Looking at people, appreciating their skin or their eyes or their body – this is something that we shouldn’t be doing in this modern enlightened day and age. The righteous, whether or  not I agree with them, do have a tendency to be so very black and white about these things.

The thing is, I can be a bit of a letch. Not a slimy, drool-y, “ello treacle” kind of letch, but I certainly know how to appreciate someone beautiful.  Male or female, I think the human body can be spectacular sometimes, sexy others, remarkable the next. I can happily spend hours surreptitiously gazing at a particularly toned tattooed arm, or appreciating a craftily placed hemline.  I wholeheartedly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – what I find attractive someone else won’t. There shouldn’t be a prescribed “right” kind of beauty, of that I’m sure. However, I don’t see why enjoying beautiful people, or wanting to be attractive yourself, should be “wrong”. We should just all be aware of our own beauty in and out – and this goes into a whole other debate about the appropriateness of advertising, fashion and beauty products. I’m not even going to try and go into that, or else this will be the longest blog post ever!

I suppose what really matters with appreciating the people around us, whether visually, or mentally, or for whatever reason, is appropriateness. For instance, I would never dream of making a lewd comment to a beautiful young man I passed in the street. I shudder at the idea of pinching the ass of someone I don’t know. It must be inappropriate to do that, just as it is to make someone feel uncomfortable just for making themselves look nice – or conversely, commenting if someone doesn’t look completely pulled together. If someone is presenting themselves for observation – such as in a photo shoot – then we should be fine to look at and appreciate the photos – but we can’t take that as permission to make advances were we to see them in real life. If people let you look at them, appreciate that – don’t take it as a right, but a gift. I think this is where the line stands between admiring and appreciating beauty, and seeing people as only objects to be looked at. A beautiful person can say amazing things, and the people who ignore that and just look at their boobs? Well, I feel quite sorry for them, because they are missing so much more of what a person can be.

It’s common sense really. Knowing that looks are irrelevant sometimes and relevant at others. Understanding boundaries, and politeness, and yet acknowledging and embracing beauty. If you tread the line well, work the balance, then you’ll be fine, and that is something that can no longer be taken for granted. After all, people do strange things and act in strange ways that seem naturally counter-intuitive much of the time!

Hmm, that was, I worry, a pile of gibberish. Sometimes I ramble so much that I lose the point completely by the time I get to the end!

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  • Naomi

    It’s really weird I was thinking about the exact same issue on my walk home from work the other day and then your post popped up in my inbox :-) I don’t think you rambled in this post (though I may be about to) and you made some very good points. I was thinking about this issue in terms of photography, in particular portraiture and photojournalism. I am interested in how photographers portray beauty and can sometimes distort our understanding of what ‘beauty’ is. I am particularly in love/obsessed with the work of the photographer Sally Mann at the moment. Her work is very controversial especially the photographs of her children. Her images are works of art with something of an ethereal quality that I think can be described as beautiful even though the subject matter is not always something that we would see as beautiful. I digress slightly and many may disagree with my assessment of Mann’s work but I think society can become stuck and fixated in one ideal of beauty which closes the mind to the beauty that can be found in even the most surprising places. People should have a right to express themselves through their fashion and feel attractive. They should not be judge or disregarded for this as there is more to a person than first appearances.