on objectification {or, how people aren't objects no matter what they wear}

As hemlines and the heat index rise, so do temperatures of the modesty debates among Christians. 'Tis the season, and nothing says summer quite like barbecue, swimsuits, and a good, old fashioned slut-shame.

What interests me especially is how the language of objectification creeps into these conversations about modesty. Feminists have long rallied against objectification of women in pornography and culture, and in an unexpected plot twist, conservative Christians seem to be jumping aboard the anti-objectification train, too. At first glance, this appears to be a step in the right direction. Yay for diverse coalitions against the idol patriarchy!

But somehow that train always seems to derail somewhere in Gnostic Territory, a grim and fearsome wasteland. Wallala leialala. Do. Not. Want.

I want to talk about what objectification is and isn't, how the premises of these debates are flawed, and how we can reframe this conversation to reflect what we believe about the incarnation. Feminism and Christianity may be strange bedfellows, but together they really can shape a positive counter-narrative to the stifling, demeaning, and heretical ones casting men as feral beasts and women as objects of lust (or scorn) instead of all of us embodied, fully human people bearing the image of God.

We are {created for} so much more than this.


Recently, a Christian website put up a much shared video called The Evolution of the Swimsuit: Can Modesty Make a Comeback? In it, Jessica Rey, owner of a one-piece swimwear line, blames the bikini for cultural decline and the dehumanization of women. So scandalous was the first modern bikini, it was modeled by a French stripper! She cites Modern Girl Magazine in 1957 opining that "no girl with tact or decency would ever wear such a thing"--that is, until the sexual revolution and women's movement seemingly sent both out the window. For Rey, women exercising power over their wardrobe, body, or sexuality by donning a two-piece cannot be construed in any sort of positive light. Citing a Princeton study and an article about it, Rey makes this bold claim:

Analysts at the National Geographic concluded that bikinis really do inspire men to see women as objects, as something to be used rather than someone to connect with. So, it seems that wearing a bikini does give a woman power, the power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person, but rather as an object.

Firstly, weird use of "inspire" there, but secondly, this power women allegedly have to cause men to dehumanize us is pretty much the worst superpower ever conceived, huh? Rey imbues certain types of clothing with the ability to override men's capacity to see women as fully human. The bikini transforms a woman from a person whose body, sexuality, and autonomy are integrated parts of her humanity into some sort of sex kitten patronus existing for male service and fantasy--and it's her own damn fault. The weak-willed man (and they're all weak according to this narrative) is helpless against this overwhelming swimsuit-induced urge to define a woman entirely by her body parts and his own projected desire.

WHAT. This is an astoundingly low view of masculinity, and it's also the same sexist woman-as-vixen/Jezebel/temptress trope that folks have been peddling ever since Eve tasted the fruit in the Garden of Eden.

I couldn't find the original studies to read, but that National Geographic article mentions a few details Rey left out: the sample group included just twenty-one men, some of the photos the students reacted to were of headless torsos and breasts (not women with faces), and the men who seemed to objectify those disembodied images also "scored higher as 'hostile sexists'—those who view women as controlling and invaders of male space."

It doesn't exactly read like the moral mandate to ban the bikini like Rey seems to suggest. The Daily Princetonian, interviewing the study authors, reported:

Study participants were also asked to fill out a survey designed to measure how sexist they are. The researchers found that when the men whose surveys indicated that they were the most sexist saw the pictures of women in bikinis, they were least likely to activate a part of the brain associated with thinking about people’s minds and thoughts, Fiske said.
“I think [the study] does relate to the effects of having pornography and sexualized images of women around and in the media because they spill over into how people treat women in general,” Fiske said, adding that these images may dehumanize women and encourage men to see them as objects. “You have to be aware of the effect of these images on people,” Fiske explained. “They’re not neutral. They do have an effect on how people think about other women.” 
Cikara said she agreed that the reactions observed in the study might be a consequence of society’s emphasis on sexualized female imagery. 
“This research can certainly help to further our understanding of the effect of sexualized women, whether in advertising or in the office,” Cikara said, adding that “men can totally override this response.” She noted that men do not look at their wives or sisters in the same way that they look at a sexualized image of a woman on an advertising billboard.

Now we're getting somewhere. While Rey argues that the bikini causes men to objectify women, implying both feminine blame and a female onus to change men's minds and their dehumanizing behavior (assumptions that are a quick jump to disturbing "she asked for it" rape apology), the Princeton study's authors suggest instead that objectification is rooted in pornography and sexism, and that men are in fact empowered to control their own gaze and action, a remarkably different conclusion than Rey's.

From The Princetonian again: "Fiske said the results indicated that some men may objectify or dehumanize partially clothed women, though further research is needed to confirm these findings." 

*Some men* may objectify partially clothed women. *Further research is needed.* to confirm these findings.

I won't jump on the "Bikinis Are Bad" bandwagon just because researchers flashed images of boobs to a few Princeton co-eds whose brains activated "regions associated with objects or 'things you manipulate with your hands.'" As Jonalyn Fincher argues, that can certainly be seen as a natural responseSexual attraction is hardly indicative of viewing people as objects, and desire is something distinct from objectification. 

Desire says, I want youObjectification says, I want that. 

Sexualized and pornographic images can cast women as objects in a way that an actual woman in a bikini on the beach does not replicate AT ALL. Objectification treats people as tools existing for the pleasure or utility of others. It reduces people to their body parts and appearance, denying their agency, autonomy, and personhood. Christians mistakenly conflate sexual desire with objectification in these discussions, but that betrays a gnostic suspicion of bodies and a lack of understanding that objectification is rooted not in attraction (or sexiness) but the commodification of women's bodies and sexuality.

[Edited to add: Attraction and a temptation to objectify fall along a spectrum that these heteronormative modesty debates fail to acknowledge. As I unpack harmful assumptions implicit in these discussions, I want to recognize that LGBTQ people and attractions (and female desire in general) are generally rendered invisible in these conversations, and that's not okay either. Objectification denies the imago Dei intrinsic to all of us: male, female, queer, gay, straight, and otherwise.]

Sexuality is an integrated part of our humanity even if we are celibate and no matter how we're dressed. It's pornography that can divorce sexuality from humanity, but strangely, so does much evangelical Christian teaching, especially aimed at single people and teens. We've falsely elevated spirit over flesh, misunderstood attraction as lust, and expected something akin to asexuality from unmarried Christians instead of wrestling honestly with what it looks like as individuals and communities to honor God and one another with our sexuality (even if we aren't having sex).

We might disagree on the appropriateness of certain outfits in certain settings, but the choice to wear sexy clothes (something that will always be culturally and personally relative) is never an invitation to view a person as an object. Can we maybe also stop projecting our preferences and prejudices onto people who don't share our faith? A million factors play into how we present ourselves, but dressing to receive sexual attention is still not asking to be seen or treated as a thing instead of a person. A sexual person (and we're all sexual people) is still and always a person.

Clothing and people do not send "Objectify me!" messages, and presenting oneself as female, attractive, or even sexy does not compromise anyone's humanity. Gnosticism, not Christian orthodoxy, casts suspicion and shame on bodies and sexuality, and it was struck down as heresy by the Church long ago. The God who made our bodies called them good and the Incarnation, in which God became flesh, further affirm the value of embodied life.

Women are people; we don't use our "powers" to cause anyone to dehumanize us. Men are people, too, capable of taking "every thought captive" and refusing to let pornography be the lens through which they relate to others. None of us is defined by desire, appearance, sin, or anyone's approval; our intrinsic, unchangeable worth stems from being made in the imago Dei.

Some will objectify a woman no matter what she wears; a cute one-piece, like those in Rey's swimwear line, is unlikely to make a difference to anyone who is predisposed to disrespect women (like the "hostile sexists" in the study). It's sad that Rey's video serves to normalize rather than challenge objectification and shame, but it's deeply troubling that she blames women for men's sexual brokenness. Upholding dignity (as Rey argues for) is a worthy goal, but if we're arguing and living like men are animals and women are objects, we're practicing the sort of terrible theology that can't get us there. There's not a thing a woman can wear to change a culture that treats her as subhuman.

Christians call this Sin. Feminists call it Rape Culture. Either way, it's the sort of brokenness for which Christ died. Resurrection sets brokenness aright, and as Christians, we too are called to be people who push back the effects of the Fall. We can't shrug our shoulders about the inevitability of sin and objectification when we worship a God who raises the dead and breathes new life from ash. When the world is not as it should be, we kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight and commit to growing something better.

But we can't create a faithful alternative to an oversexed, objectifying culture by pathologizing sexuality and imposing modesty rules rooted in bad theology, misogyny, or dysfunction. I believe in seeking to honor God, others, and self, but modesty is something best wrestled with privately and locally and has considerably more to do with humility than swimwear anyway. Universalized rules weigh like chains, and we're not called to bind others to to the specific ways we discern God leading us.

What if instead of reacting against an increasingly sexualized culture with shame, fear, and legalism, we demonstrated what a whole and holy sexuality might look like? What if Christians were known less by our self-righteous spiritualizing and more for being people who understand what it is to be fully human? What if we countered objectification by treating every person we meet with dignity, as one who bears the very the image of God?

Because we do, in swimwear and anything else. We're beloved and fully human, no matter what.

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