Objectification and Rape Culture
Trigger Warning: This article includes discussion of sexual assault and rape culture. If you are bothered by such discussion, this is probably not the article for you.
I was 14 years old the first time I was sexually assaulted. My friend held me down on a bathroom floor and groped me until I yelled loud enough that the other boys we were hanging out with rescued me.
I’m lucky they didn’t join in.
I told a few friends who didn’t think it was a big deal. I don’t remember ever considering telling my parents — I was probably afraid that I would get in trouble for doing the things I wasn’t supposed to be doing: drinking, smoking pot, hanging out with boys when no parent was home. And I was afraid it was my fault, after all, I was drinking, smoking pot, and hanging out with boys when no parent was home. How could my friend have possibly controlled himself?
If nothing else, the #metoo movement has shown us that experiences like this aren’t singular. From the best friend holding you down on the bathroom floor to the college boy who doesn’t give a shit about consent to the thousands of anonymous hands grabbing asses at parties and men following you around the dance floor or cornering you on your way to the bathroom. These acts aren’t singular and they aren’t random. They are indicative of a culture that at once tells men that they have the right to look and touch women’s bodies whenever they feel like it and tells women that it’s their fault when it happens.
And, don’t worry, you don’t have to #notallmen at me. I know that not all men are rapists and that sometimes women are rapists too. Three women have sexually harassed me to the point of discomfort and one has tried to coerce me into sex. But I don’t even need a full hand to count these instances. The fact that I can clearly remember each one is indicative of its rareness. I have had so many experiences of harassment and coercion and groping and grabbing by men (and boys) that I can’t even hope to remember them all. I spent years hiding my body behind huge t-shirts and baggy pants and it didn’t help. Whether my body was covered or exposed wasn’t the point. Just having a female body made it public property.
It’s called rape culture and I’m sure by now you’ve heard of it.
But in case you haven’t, Wikipedia defines rape culture as:
...a sociological concept for a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, slut-shaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by sexual violence, or some combination of these.
So what does rape culture have to do with fitness? I’m going to posit 2 things: 1. Objectification of female bodies in fitness contributes to rape culture. 2. Women’s obsession with getting as tiny as possible is both due to and supports rape culture. Let’s look at the first one.
Objectification of female bodies in fitness contributes to rape culture. If I google-image-search the term “fit woman” I get dozens of images of mostly white women in sports bras and tiny shorts.
They are all lean and they are almost all small. This tells women and men that fit women like to show off their bodies and that their bodies are meant to be seen — that perhaps “fitness” is really just code for “hotness.” Some of the women in these pictures are holding fitness equipment, but even they are just standing there passively. Notably, one picture shows a woman in bed with a man...why? Why would that be in the top 25 of the pictures that come up?
I’ve gone to a couple of bodybuilding competitions to support a friend who was competing in figure. You may not know that bodybuilding has different categories, from smallest to largest muscles: bikini, figure, physique, bodybuilding. And, not surprisingly, the smaller the category the more women compete in it. I remember in one competition I attended, there were probably 60 women competing in bikini and two competing in bodybuilding. When it came time to judge, the five highest scoring women from the bikini competition were called up. The male judges would line them up and then call orders, “Number three face the back. Walk to the back of the stage. Face front. Walk to the front of the stage. Quarter turn to the right. Face the back.” The woman would do as commanded, occasionally flicking her hair and giving a little wink as she arched her back to show off her ass.
Now, it’s absolutely possible that these women felt empowered in their sexuality. That they felt in control, even as they were being asked to move around the stage in their stilettos. I just want to note that while the number of female participants decreased as the size of the woman in the category increased, for men it was the opposite: the larger the size of the person in the category, the more men competed in it. That tells me that men want to be seen as strong and powerful and women don’t, which reflects what our society tells us is right.
Women’s obsession with getting as tiny as possible is both due to and supports rape culture. I want to call attention to the pervasive idea that to be a woman means to be small. Does our desire for smallness support the cultural notion that we need to be protected by men because we are helpless and weak? And does our obsession with our body’s appearance support the notion that our bodies are solely there to be looked at? I think it does.
We get in front of mirrors and we pinch our bellies, make faces at our thighs, jiggle our triceps and bemoan that we don’t have perfectly sculpted asses. And then we go run five miles and we don’t notice how awesome it is that our bodies are propelling us through the air, our legs and lungs working hard to push us through to the finish. We don’t celebrate our bodies for what they can do when all we care about is what they look like.
My mom wants to be her high school weight. And she hates the skin on her arms: “It looks old.” My dad wishes he could run like he used to, that he was as strong as he used to be. They are only two people, but they illustrate my point: my female mother cares about what her body looks like, while my male father cares about what his body can do.
In my vision of a perfect world, women (and men, for that matter) wouldn’t care whether or not they fit some societal ideal. They would care about whether or not their bodies functioned well and without pain.
Years ago, I read an article in Beauty Redefined, called, “Your Body is Powerful. Use it as an Instrument, Not an Ornament.” When I feel the need to beat myself up for some perceived flaw — for being too stubby or chubby or red-faced — I try to remember: my body is an instrument, not an ornament.
Is that enough to take down the patriarchy? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. If rape culture is designed to make us hide, to make us feel unlovable and unloved, to make us feel ashamed, then simply allowing ourselves to be healed is fighting back. We are worth more than the boxes they put us in: hot or not; fat or thin; sexy or slutty or prudish or pure or, or, or… We can’t change other people, but we can try to change ourselves.
Maybe if we can reframe the way we feel about our bodies, we can start the process of reframing the way the rest of the world sees us too. So here are three things we can do to start that process:
Every time you catch yourself thinking something negative about the way your body looks, think of 3 things your body can do. It can be something small, like the ability to walk up a flight of stairs (not everyone can do that) or something big, like the ability to run an ultra-marathon (almost no one can do that). Let’s all try to get out of the mindset that our bodies are only built to please the patriarchal gaze and realize that our bodies are built to do all sorts of awesome things, like childbirth and back squats and mountain climbing and, and, and...
If you hear other women body shaming themselves (or others) for some perceived aesthetic slight, gently correct them. Remind them, “Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.” Be compassionate. “I hear that you hate the way your stomach looks and I’m sorry you feel that way. Have you noticed, though, that you’ve made it into the gym 3 times this week? Your body must be working pretty well to be able to do that…”
Join the private Fitness for Feminists facebook group. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re already moving away from this aesthetic mode of thinking...or at least you’re open to that idea. That’s great. The more of us there are, the more support we have, the better we’ll feel. With that in mind, I’ve created a space that I hope will be a safe place for people to get together to talk about fitness and nutrition and things like objectification and rape culture without fear of reprisal. To join the group, visit https://www.facebook.com/fitforfeminists and click on the invite currently pinned to the top of the page.
Thank you to Colleen Flanagan for letting me use a photograph her awesome Shero t-shirts, which were inspired by the bravery of Christine Blasey Ford. You can buy your Shero t-shirts (I'm wearing mine right now) at her Facebook store or get one for free by signing up for the January 14 cohort of FFF fitness and nutrition coaching (details below). Find more of Colleen's incredible artwork on her website or follow her on Instagram @flannie802.
I’ll be going on a hiaitus for the holidays. Though Whole Hedonist has a post publishing next week, I’ll be hanging up my keyboard until after the New Year.
The next cohort of online fitness and nutrition coaching starts Monday, January 14! Sign up between 1/1 and 1/13. Good fitness and nutrition habits are about leading a full, healthy life, not fitting into a size 2. Contact me with questions or to get on my presale list.