Looking at women’s objectification as a disabler

Exploring how women are subjected to extreme objectification by, in and within media representations.

Muskaan Palod, Managing Editor

Illustration by Suryansh Deo Srivastava


Firstly, let us understand how disability as a concept is of sociological relevance. Don’t we just assume everyone can walk? Everyone will know how to best use motor skills at the least. One would just find it normal only when you are able bodied, able structured and able to deliver what you possess. Anything short, is a disability. When I say disability- I refer to the disability to fit into the construct and infrastructure built by the society. There is a certain sense of elitism to deny accessibility to a large section of our population. Therefore, what is construed as a disability and what is not, is a decision made by a society and community. Therefore, it becomes a ‘we’ problem. Look at it this way- we just assume everyone has the capital required to get basic medical care for their children. But an entire generation may be deprived of that ‘luxurious necessity’ because they may have to arrange drinking water after standing in a queue for 5 hours and then work at a minimum wage rate to provide meals on the table. What we notice here is that even poverty is a disabler for a chunk of population. Therefore, when talking about disability, it’s a relative measure which depends on the accessibility made possible by the members of the community. Secondly, let us see the different terminology which can be confused for disability with an example. Vijaya is a four-year old who has a form of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia. It causes their legs to be stiff, tight and difficult to move. They cannot stand or walk.


Vijaya’s impairment is the inability to bear weight on the feet.

Vijaya’s inability to walk is a disability.

Vijaya’s cerebral palsy handicaps them to the point that it prevents them from fulfilling a normal role at home.


When we talk of disability in particular, more often than not, it can be reduced to a struggle to merely overcome, provided resources to accommodate within the system in place. Vijaya’s level of disability can easily be improved with physical therapy and special equipment. For example- if they learn to use a walker, with braces, their level of disability will improve considerably.


Again, what exactly was/is construed as beautiful and feminine was a product of extreme commodification. It was and still is all part of a ‘culture’ of women being viewed by the male gaze and women’s bodies existing to fulfil male sexual desire.

Using the same lens of disability, I would like to talk about commodification of women (media representation) as a disabler to societal growth. Recently, I was presented with the opportunity to attend a lingerie fashion show with Victoria’s Secret introducing their new set. I do not resonate with the brand, however, its popularity is undeniable. Interestingly, I learned thatVictoria’s Secret was founded in 1977 as a place for men to buy lingerie for women. Ray Raymond, the heterosexual man who founded Victoria’s Secret, claimed he was too embarrassed to buy lingerie for his wife, so he decided to create a safe space where men could be comfortable to buy lingerie which makes the ‘real’ women in their lives more ‘beautifully feminine’. Again, what exactly was/is construed as beautiful and feminine was a product of extreme commodification. It was and still is all part of a ‘culture’ of women being viewed by the male gaze and women’s bodies existing to fulfil male sexual desire.


Charles Horton Cooley presents us with the Looking-Glass Body: (Reflexivity as Embodiment). It refers to an imaginary perspective of others. In this basic process, Cooley identifies “three principal elements: the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance; and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification.” For these reasons, Cooley (1902:87) argued, “the imaginations which people have of one another are the solid facts of society,” Bodies are seen and the act of seeing is reflexive in precisely the same way that Cooley identifies. When we gaze upon bodies of others we only interpret what we observe. Similarly, others imagine what we may be seeing and feeling, thus completing the reflections of the looking-glass. Obviously, this looking-glass body is not a direct reflection of others’ judgments – it is an imagined reflection built of cues gleaned from others. Reflexivity is then to be understood as a necessary condition of embodiment, and embodiment must be understood as a form of reflexivity.


The whole concept of women having to invest time and effort into thinking how their clothes, or their appearance has to identify with what they need to portray themselves as, their appearance must relay a character is pretty much a disability in many ways. This makes one think of how vain this practice is. Yet the system connotes why this exists. In our urban world, in the streets we walk, in the buses we take, in the magazines we read, on walls, on screens, we are surrounded by images of an alternative way of life. We may remember or forget these images, but briefly we take them in. They persuade us by showing us the transformation of people who have invested and as a result, are enviable.


A woman is expected to be sensually appealing, yet at the same time, virginous. One may argue that the media must be consumed with precaution and the onus is on women to constantly delve into exploring the ‘truth of the matter’. This translates again to the expectation that women must be strong and extremely beautiful to be respected and considered ‘worth it’.

Now let’s recall the advertisements and billboards we see everyday. A ‘Fair and Lovely’ advertisement (apologies, ‘Glow and Lovely’) – conveying how brown skin is not okay, urging us to invest in a cream that helps us change our complexion in just 15 days. Another advertisement I recall is by a lingerie brand. It implies that although the woman is single on valentine’s day, her wearing a rather uncomfortable set of lingerie is going to change the fact and a handsome man just pops up from thin air to provide companionship. It relays that being single is something we should be sad about. It also tells us that a man is attracted to a woman based on what undergarments she is wearing. It asserts that a woman is supposed to be passive in her attitude towards romance- that we are supposed to stay available till a man approaches us. Advertisements like these promote a flawed perfection of appearance as demanded by men. It promotes a sense of envy amongst each other. The advertisement shows us an alternate reality which although we may reject as conscious consumers, I imagine there are advertisements we don’t consciously disregard and just accept. Another vertical very commonly seen is how women are represented as overly motherly and strong in character. Her character is seen to be diabolical. In the new Netflix show, we see how a matchmaker is presented with demands that insist that women but necessarily be ‘fair and pretty’. I wonder how we got here - a space where families feel it is okay to ‘demand’ that out of a person. There is a sense of objectification and reduction of their value to how they appear. This appearance factor is introduced and reinforced time and again by the media. A woman is expected to be sensually appealing, yet at the same time, virginous. One may argue that the media must be consumed with precaution and the onus is on women to constantly delve into exploring the ‘truth of the matter’. This translates again to the expectation that women must be strong and extremely beautiful to be respected and considered ‘worth it’. This becomes normative and must be questioned.


Advocacy doesn’t come easy. Despite questioning the system in place, there is high internalisation because we are also products of the system we breed in. For starters, we are technically not born with identity; it is a socially constructed attribute. “The self-concept, which is the knowledge of who we are, combines with self awareness to develop a cognitive representation of the self, called identity” (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010, p.118). The constant persuasion into buying a ‘reality’ feeds into the conception we view ourselves with.


Invariably, this is a disability for us. We are impaired the opportunity to be at par with men, not just at perceptual level but at a level that is a societal consciousness.



References

  1. UK Essays. (2018). A Definition Of Disability Sociology Essay. Retrieved from: https://www.ukessays.com/essays/sociology/an-definition-of-disability-sociology-essay.php?vref=1

  2. KA, W. (2015). Commodification of Women in Advertising: The Social Cost. Retrieved from: https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/commodification-of-women-in-advertising-the-social-cost--2169-026X-1000167.php?aid=68997

  3. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. Retrieved from: http://waysofseeingwaysofseeing.com/ways-of-seeing-john-berger-5.7.pdf

  4. Coyne, M. (2018). The Real Problem with the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Isn't the Lack of Diversity. Retrieved from: https://verilymag.com/2018/12/victorias-secret-fashion-show-body-image-diversity-sizes-objectification-2018

  5. BubblyTalk. (1970). Mirrors and Mountains. Retrieved from https://mirrorsmountains.blogspot.com/2017/02/victorias-secret-empowering-or_19.html


Muskaan is a BA student at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, pursuing psychology and sociology. She is a strong advocate for mental health and its intersectionality. She believes kindness and compassion, poetry and words have the power to change the world. She hopes to build a career around inclusive policy development of mental healthcare. You can find her writings and poetry on @tacitphrases. Her Instagram handle is @muskaaanp_ Email: muskaanpalod00@gmail.com

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/muskaan-palod