Is There A Blurred Line Between a Woman’s Autonomy and her Objectification?

Woman's Autonomy

One of the cornerstones of feminism is a woman’s freedom to choose. From the clothes she wears to the career she chooses to her sex life — the movement calls for her complete autonomy. Feminism retorts forcefully against people who slut-shame women for wearing revealing clothes. It also rejects the idea of demonizing women who choose, on their own, to cover up themselves.

But there is an opposing force that the patriarchy exhibits called objectification. It is in a constant tug-of-war with a woman’s autonomy, making sure that she is no longer a whole human being but parts to be used. Advertising has taken advantage of it; from hamburger commercials using scantily clad women in string bikinis to magazine covers of women wearing little to nothing, it is common knowledge that a woman’s body sells. And the media is well aware of that fact.

Lana Del Rey

From the article by Jezebel called GQ Ran Out of Clothes for Its Woman of the Year

In response, many women get angry, and rightly so. It is not right for a woman to be seen as an object in the media while men are seen as whole people. And nearly every time a woman is seen in the media wearing little to nothing and/or contorting her body in ways that are suggestive, we feminists cry objectification.

But, lately, I have been considering women in the entertainment industry, the ones whose performances are not limited to a stage or a movie screen; their modeling work is found in advertising and magazines. A lot of these performers channel their sexual energy in their profession, owning it unapologetically and encouraging other women to do the same. A couple of female artists that come to mind are Beyoncé and Rihanna and when they are on stage, many women praise them for exercising their autonomy. But once they grace magazines in a similar manner, we say that they are being objectified. There are also models who enjoy their jobs and when we find them in magazines, in advertising, or in any form of media wearing little clothing and posing provocatively, we say they are also being objectified.

And that got me thinking…

Can a woman’s autonomy overlap with her objectification? Or are we wrong for saying she is being objectified when she is well aware of the poses and clothing required for her modeling gigs? If she is comfortable enough to model, is she still being objectified? Does her autonomy end where her objectification begins or is there an inevitable blurry line between the two concepts? Let me know in the comments section below.

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  • It depends on the situation too. Was she ONLY offered the option of posing naked when men were posing clothed or did she choose that from several options?

  • That’s a good point. Having women only having the choice to pose nude while men are given the option of being fully clothed reveals the sexism and objectification in advertising. I am not sure how Lana Del Rey felt posing that way but there are other women who pose similarly as per the director’s/photographer’s orders and they feel empowered doing so. There are others like Janelle Monae who refuse to pose in such suggestive ways. For those who feel empowered posing nearly nude and sexually while following the orders of the director or photographer to pose that way, are they still being objectified even though they fully consent to it?

  • Charmaine Griffin

    This post definitely provides some food for thought. Honestly it’s a fine line, because I also wonder the same thing, especially as of late because sexuality is in a way being “taken back” by women. I guess it’s really situational, but if a woman makes the decision, with full autonomy, to be provocative in whatever medium she chooses, then that’s her using agency over her sexuality. Leaving us with only the responsibility of applauding her strength. That is, unless she wasn’t given the choice. When we see people like Nicki Minaj or Rih Rih, who state that they love being sexy, we assume that they’ve had creative control over how they look in ads, etc. So it’s such a fine line…

  • I read somewhere once that one way to distinguish between sexual empowerment and objectification is asking who has the power. Someone like Beyonce has enough agency through her celebrity and her influence to choose to be sexual (or not be). Someone who’s young, up-and-coming, might not be able to decline objectification without that damaging her career.

    I also think it’s important to keep in the mind the system/society in which we make these decisions. In a parallel situation, for example, I wear makeup to professional events because as much as I loathe the standard, women wearing makeup is part of “professional” dress. I rarely wear makeup in my day-to-day life. Me wearing it to networking events or conferences is me making the best choice to further myself professionally within the limitations of sexist standards. On the other hand, I love wearing makeup for weddings and fancy events. Getting ready for a special event is basically self-care for me, since that’s when I go all out with my skin, hair, face, and clothes. So that is me making the active choice to wear makeup.

  • That’s exactly how I think of it! It does take guts to pose nude – guts I don’t think I have. However, when it is the only option a woman is given, it is objectification because the message being sent is that she can’t be beautiful with clothes on.

  • This is an extremely hard subject to tackle. Far be it from me to be outdated and say that a woman should never choose to show any part of her body because frankly that is her choice. Now as a designer, there are times when a model has no choice because she is being hired & paid to show the designer’s vision not hers. So it’s definitely a blurry line and one we’ll always argue with each other about for a while.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Charmaine! Like you said, we assume that Nicki and Rih Rih have full control in their photos. Rihanna and Beyonce actually posed in GQ and their photos have been circulated throughout the internet in anger concerning GQ’s objectification of women since men (as seen in the photos above) are fully clothed. As you can imagine, much like Lana del Rey, Rihanna and Beyonce are barely wearing anything. In this case, are they still being autonomous given the obvious bias against women getting a drastically different treatment with the clothes they wear in GQ all while knowing that Beyonce, Nicki, and Rihanna endorse women embracing their sexuality? I have a hard time answering that question because the line seems so blurry to me.

  • That’s an interesting take, Brita! I have actually never heard that a woman’s power via celebrity or high social status could allow someone to distinguish between sexual empowerment and objectification. In a comment below, I mentioned that Beyonce actually appeared in GQ and, much like Lana del Rey, she barely had anything on (well Lana had nothing on but you know what I mean lol). There have been complaints on Pinterest and elsewhere saying that both she and Rihanna are also being objectified because of how GQ dresses men fully vs. women dressing scantily. With two powerful women like these, is it possible that their celebrity is not enough to avoid objectification? Or is it also possible that their agreement to pose a sexually suggestive way nullifies our perceived objectification in their photos and we’re wrong? Or, in some weird way, can objectification and woman’s agency coexist?

    As for wearing makeup, I never thought of it being part of “professional” dress either. The only makeup I own is clear lip gloss and I don’t always wear that to business-related events lol. Makeup is something I am intrigued by and I can literally watch makeup tutorials for hours, especially the ones on darker skin tones like mine. I think it would be cool to learn and practice on myself, but as of now, I can’t be bothered with it haha. I suppose that is me exercising my agency not to wear it but I am in no way, shape, or form anti-makeup.

  • I think objectification and women’s agency coexists in the form of self-objectification. But it’s one of those things that you can’t define for another woman. It actually drives me crazy to see judgmental remarks from (usually white) feminists about sexy (usually black) women. Aka like your examples of Rihanna and Beyonce. Do you remember the bizarre backlash to Beyonce’s totally fierce Superbowl performance? Her performance was strong and intense, but since she was wearing a leotard, then clearly she was objectifying herself.

    Personally, I find it really presumptuous to assume someone else is an example of self-objectification. Were there times in my past when I dressed for the male gaze? Totally. Were there times in my past when I rocked my cleavage for myself? Absolutely. Can anyone except for me differentiate between those? Probably not.

  • I love that you tied in the fact that you’re a fashion designer since modeling is a HUGE part of the fashion industry. I completely agree that it is blurry. And yes, I also agree that a woman should be in full control of determining what part of her body she wants (or doesn’t want) to show off. When it comes to modeling, if you are a newbie trying to make an income yet are asked to pose in a way that makes you uncomfortable because it is sexually suggestive, that’s clearly objectification. But if you’re comfortable with it AND it’s clearly suggestive, that’s where the lines blur to me. You’re right; it’s something that will result in a lot of debate for the very reason that the line seems blurry. Thanks for your valuable input, Tamara!

  • Ah, there it is! I didn’t know there was such a term as “self-objectification.” And yes, I have definitely seen how the accusations play out in feminism as it pertains to black women vs white women, and I remember that backlash Beyoncé got. It irritated me so much and it bugs me when I continue to see it play out. One recent example is Miley being “sexually liberating” but Nicki being “too sexual.” There is this stereotype of black women being intrinsically overly sexual and I hate it SO MUCH because I see it in my own life, especially when non-black men who fetishize black women use my race as part of their pick up line, using words like “feisty” and what not. *eye roll*

  • You’re welcome! Keep the great posts coming!

  • Hey there, visiting from The F-Word Linkup! I really love the question you ask here. When I was in university, I went to see a burlesque show for one of my drama classes, and of course the female performers are dressed provocatively and dance provocatively, all of it their choice. After, one of the performers talked to my class and one of the students asked her why she considers her burlesque performance empowering when she is still being objectified. She said, like Brita, that it’s about her choice. But I also find this confusing. Her choice didn’t change the fact that the student objectified her while watching… right? She just chose to be okay with being objectified… and it wasn’t being forced on her, which is what I think a lot of feminism is trying to say – that it’s not okay for women to constantly be objectified by the media/society. What do you think? This is me just kind of running with my thoughts haha!

  • Hi Sareeta! Nice to see you here. 🙂 From what Brita said and my more knowledgeable grasp of the duality of agency and objectification, I don’t think the performer chose to be objectified. Only the audience member can choose to objectify (which is what feminism is trying to advocate against). It is the viewers’ choice to respect her agency or to objectify her. On the flip side, feminism is also advocating for a woman’s agency, which the performer exercises during her burlesque performances. No one forced her, so she was being empowered by her own choice. I think they are separate occurrences, but since they often happen at the same time (a woman exercising agency vs. someone objectifying her), the line seems blurred. I hope that helps! Thanks for adding to the discussion, Sareeta! 🙂

  • Hey Mary… sorry it has taken me SO long to reply! The Disqus emails have gotten pushed down my inbox.

    That makes sense, empowerment through choice. I think you also make a really interesting point about objectification, that it can only happen if the viewer chooses to do so. Is it possible to objectify without choosing to, or meaning to?