We recently received a letter from a reader asking how she should approach her husband about some problematic comments he makes about breasts.
While her husband is an advocate for gender equality, she feels the things he says about breasts are objectifying and sexist. She goes on to say:
But I don’t know how to explain [how this is objectifying] to him well so that he understands. On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s okay for him to admire/be attracted to a particular body part. Is fetishizing a body part okay?
This is a sticky subject to broach with men, especially those who feel that they actively advocate for gender equality and aid us in dismantling the patriarchy.
I get it.
Most men want to be supportive and appreciative of women, not to deny us respect and equal rights.
But we all operate under a patriarchal system in which we’re taught to believe that the female body exists solely for a man’s sexual pleasure and entertainment. This sexist and dehumanizing mentality is reproduced daily in things that people deem normal or trivial.
For example, consider the persistent issue of catcalling; Many men argue that this behavior is harmless and should be taken as a compliment, even after they’re told how anxiety-inducing the experience is for the person on the receiving end.
And sometimes, as with the case of the reader and her husband, there isn’t much difference between comments about our bodies being hurled at us from a stranger in the streets or neatly packaged and “gifted” from someone we care about.
There are times when both are unwarranted, unnecessary, and marginalizing. And that’s not okay.
Let’s break down why.
1. It Dangerously Conflates Attraction and Objectification
Attraction is when a person likes how a physical characteristic or trait enhances a person’s overall unique beauty.
Objectification happens when that person just likes one specific thing and reduces people to that thing.
An example of this would be when men refer to themselves as T or A men.
If that’s the primary criteria of their attraction, they’re essentially saying they would turn away a great, charismatic woman just because she may have tits or an ass that don’t live up to some socially conditioned standard.
Alternatively, they would solely date a person based on how they look.
As a breast owner, I can understand the fascination with them. They’re amazing – I get that.
But breasts are not solely for aesthetic or sexual purposes. They have a function. And there are painful consequences to objectifying body parts associated with womanhood.
For one thing, it’s cisnormative to equate breasts with femininity and womanhood. Not everyone who has breasts is a woman, and not all women have breasts.
Defining people by their body parts prioritizes your perspective of their body over their definition of self – which is exactly what’s happening when men are more focused on sexually or aesthetically appreciating breast than the freedom, agency, respect, privacy, needs, autonomy, and wellbeing of the person who possesses them.
2. Objectification Leads to Dehumanization
Boobs are great, but forgetting there is a person behind those fleshy bits is not.
Reducing people to their anatomy creates this space that some if not most of us exist outside of because we don’t fit into the male gaze’s narrow categories of what it means to be attractive or a woman.
This dynamic further marginalizes an already marginalized group of people, which is not something I’d imagine a self-identified advocate for gender equality would want to do.
Sadly, women and those perceived as women are still being commodified, picked apart, and scrutinized by body parts.
And most of us are so accustomed to being told that our bodies must always be accessible to the sexualized viewing pleasure of men that, like in the case of our reader, we second guess and question the validity of our own discomfort when faced with this type of objectification.
It seems like normal behavior for men to “appreciate” “women’s bodies,” but not for its functional purposes. Consequently, women are given very conflicting messages about their parts.
We’re told to “save the tatas” afflicted by breast cancer, but not the living, breathing person attached to them.
We are bombarded with scantily clad women in media showing everything but areolas to sell lingerie, cheeseburgers, and washing machines, but mothers are expected to cover their nursing children with blankets or feed them in the bathroom them so they won’t make other people uncomfortable.
Young girls are told that how they look and how sexually accessible they are to men are more important than their education when they are repeatedly being sent home from school for daring to wear shorts and tank tops (read: weather appropriate clothes) because their bodies are “distracting” to boys.
Women are taught to be shameful of every stray hair, stretch mark, blemish, cellulite, freckle and embarrassed of their arm fat, flat butt, wide butt, itty bitty titties that need extra padding in our push-up bras or big-ass titties that fall out of every flimsy top and need to be covered up immediately because patriarchy dictates how female bodies are viewed, what they are best for, and how they best serve men.
3. Your Comments Make Others (Like Your Partner) Uncomfortable
This is where I forget I’m writing this for a mass audience, smack my forehead, and think, “Come on, bro.”
If you only take one thing away from this piece it should be this: If what you do makes another person, especially an intimate partner, uncomfortable, you should stop.
No, this is not up for debate. That is more than enough reason for the husband to reevaluate his actions.
No one should feel uncomfortable or unsafe in a relationship. When it comes to being an ally, respect is just as important as recognizing all the terrible ways people are marginalized in society.
And part of respect in a relationship is acknowledging your partner’s feelings, earnestly engaging with their ideas, and creating a culture where everyone involved feels secure in speaking up for themselves.
Let’s keep it real: People who speak up about objectification, especially when that is interfering with the male gaze and the normalization of men’s entitlement to the female body, are usually treated like a total buzzkill.
And I get it. It interrupts everything we’re taught about gender and beauty and attraction and dating and the pursuit of romance.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are alternatives and solutions that wont conflict with your feminist values!
For example, you can do what a friend of mine does and first ask permission to comment on someone’s appearance before actually commenting. (“Hey, can I comment on your sweater?” “Um…yes?” “I love your sweater!”)
This was awkward at first, but I’ve grown to appreciate my friend’s willingness to respect other people’s boundaries and make an effort to give others full autonomy over messages received about their appearance.
While some of you think this route is unnecessarily extreme, it’s important to realize that some comments are neither desired nor warranted. People, especially women, are not always open and receptive to comments about their body, nor should they be.
How to Talk to Your Partner About This
For readers whose partner(s) may be participating in these behaviors, here are some suggestions to help you discuss why objectifying statements and behaviors are harmful with your partner/s (and others):
1. Speak up immediately after the objectifying comment or behavior happens.
One of the main reasons people exhibit problematic or objective behavior is that they’re not aware that it’s harmful. So don’t be afraid to confront your partner, or anyone else, about the problematic things they say or do.
They truly may not even know that it’s a problem.
Confronting the person immediately after or in the process of them saying or doing something objectifying is also super effective because it helps that the other person know exactly which behavior is problematic.
Hopefully they’ll work toward correcting and checking themselves in the future.
The person being confronted should respect you enough to adjust their behavior. And if they’re truly an ally, they should be actively working toward a better understanding of the marginalization that people face – even if it’s something as seemingly trivial as being really into boobs.
2. Explain why objectifying comments are problematic.
The reader mentioned in her question that she didn’t feel well equipped to call out their husband about his comments on breasts, and that’s perfectly fine. You don’t have to be well-versed in feminist theory to confront someone on behavior that makes you uncomfortable.
Allies should be willing to educate themselves on issues as well; marginalized people are not walking encyclopedias of oppression for people to demand information from.
Marginalized people are not obligated to educate another person on any subject (especially when Google exists!), but if you feel generous enough to provide them with basic knowledge and point them in the right direction, by all means, do so.
3. Keep the conversation ongoing and open-ended.
It’s an ongoing struggle for privileged people, marginalized people, and allies alike to unlearn harmful behavior symptomatic of the patriarchy.
People make mistakes. Don’t expect the other person to immediately stop saying or doing harmful things after correcting them the first time. Both parties must be open to dialogue as well.
This is an ongoing conversation.
Those who are working to correct their problematic language and behavior shouldn’t feel discouraged from asking questions. A true ally should work toward making a marginalized group feel less so.
Allies are not without faults, and while they try their best, slip-ups due to misinformation happen. The best advice I can give is for both parties to keep the conversation going and to be nurturing and patient with one another.
Jenika McCrayer is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Virginia native with a BA in Women and Gender Studies from The College of William and Mary, she is currently pursuing an MA in the same field. This AmeriCorps alumna is passionate about community service and strives for a better understanding of how to mobilize marginalized populations through service and activism. Jenika also enjoys good books, bad horror films, naps, and the beach. Follow her on Twitter @JenikaMc.