I can’t believe it’s been 2 weeks since I last posted! Sorry folks! Last week Ike and I flew down to North Carolina to surprise my mother-in-law for her 60th birthday, so I had to go silent on social media. I didn’t want to risk spilling the beans. Fortunately, she was TOTALLY surprised and delighted to see us (and by “us” I mean her grandson). Mission accomplished, and we’ve been hanging out with family ever since.
Once I fly back to Illinois I’ll be leading a workshop on body image, the media, and how Christians can respond to a culture that objectifies women. I’ve been researching this topic for weeks now, and I’ve learned SO much. There is such a treasure trove of information out there, and today I’ll share just one of those gems.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the term “sexual objectification,” but until recently I had never heard of “objectification theory.” The term was coined in 1997 by Barbara Fredrickson and Tommi-Ann Roberts, who explain the theory this way:
“Objectification theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves.”
In other words, women are learning to view themselves as objects. Furthermore, women who view themselves as objects are more likely to suffer from feelings of shame, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
Now if you’re like me, you might be wondering what it means to adopt “an observer’s perspective as a primary view of” your physical self. Practically speaking, what does it mean to self-objectify?
Fredrickson and Roberts explain,
“Sexual objectification is the experience of being treated as a body (or a collection of body parts) valued predominately for its use (or consumption by) others….Sexual objectification occurs whenever a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments.”
American culture is saturated with images that communicate this objectification, that a woman’s body “exists for the use and pleasure of others.” However objectification theory explains that the objectification of women is not merely external. Women internalize their own objectification.
In practical terms, women self-objectify when our bodies become our primary sources of value. When we believe that our looks, our body shape, or our sexual attractiveness give us worth, then we are no longer treating ourselves as whole human beings, and we are objectifying ourselves.
From a Christian perspective, the Bible has a lot to say about objectification. In particular, Scripture speaks into the disjointed understanding of personhood that Fredrickson and Roberts mention above. Rather than emphasize the body over the soul, or vice versa, Christian tradition asserts the unity of a person’s body, heart, mind, and soul.
For instance, 1 Corinthians 6 reminds Christians that what we do with our bodies affects our whole beings. Likewise, Christ himself became human and experienced a physical resurrection. This tells us that God isn’t interested in the soul more than the body, but in the WHOLE person.
To me, the big question is how Christians can subvert the objectification of women. And how can we as women avoid self-objectifying?
As I just mentioned, the reality of Jesus’ life and death is central. The Son of God became human in order to save our whole selves. God isn’t only interested in our bodies anymore than He is only interested in our souls. God cares about the whole of you.
Which means you should too. It’s easy to become preoccupied by thoughts about your body–your abs, your cellulite, your wrinkles, your gray hair, etc.–while neglecting your spiritual health, mental health, or emotional health. In fact, an over preoccupation with the body can contribute to the deterioration of those other aspects of yourself.
However, that does not mean neglecting your body altogether. Your body is a part of yourself too, which means you should care for your body as you would any other part of yourself. The key is paying attention to the whole of you.
For another example of what holistic personhood looks like, consider marriage. Although not all marriages are healthy and life-giving, marriage has helped me to better understand how God designed me, and the holistic nature of His love for me. My husband is the one person who gets all of me, body and soul. And although he loves my body, he doesn’t love my body most, nor does he value me because of my body. He doesn’t objectify me or love me in a way that is disjointed. He loves who I am as a whole, and he is concerned with my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health. He values me as a person, not as a body.
That kind of love is the very opposite of objectification.
I share that example, not to argue that marriage is the only place where women can experience full personhood, but only as a personal testimony. First and foremost, Christians experience whole personhood in Christ. Ideally, we should also experience it in the church. The church is to be a community where women are not valued for their attractiveness or what they can do, but because of who they are in Christ. Their entire beings–body and soul–reflect the image of God, so it is important that the church communicates this truth to women. This means that messages for women should not focus solely on body issues (like modesty) or a woman’s utilitarian role (like her place in the church or the home) but on a much larger vision of womanhood.
If we hope to resist the disjointed vision of personhood that is ravaging women in our culture, then a holistic counter-vision is necessary. Fortunately we have it in Jesus Christ. He came to save our bodies and our souls. In a society where women are depressed, starving themselves, and battling a competing narrative of value and beauty, the truth of Christ is the only one that can set us free.