Self-love is a long and sometimes troubled process.
One’s identity comprises both the soul and body, and when considering self-love, it’s important to embrace and cherish this entirety.
It’s fair to say that I am still not completely capable of doing so, and many times I haven’t loved myself enough for several reasons. Many factors stem from societal norms that we absorb from a very young age; of these, I’ve always thought that body objectification plays a big role.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the consequences this phenomenon has on the well-being of women, and which solutions would be effective in combating this problem.
While researching and writing this article, I asked all my girlfriends to share their experiences with objectification. Diane told me that when she was a teenager, her school held a beauty contest where all the girls had to parade class by class and receive a grade based on their physical appearance. Sophie opened an interesting debate about self-objectification and shared how the constant external pressure – perpetuated over time – led her to adopt behaviours like checking her weight and placing more importance on her physical appearance rather than her own identity. Furthermore, I have been attending a weekly feminist gathering where everyone has the chance to speak: it struck me that many of the participants shared experiences such as trying to fit in a socially accepted shape or devaluing oneself based on the objectifying judgments of others.
I could go on and tell you many other examples, and I’m sure you have a few of your own. So let’s dive into this topic, and explore some solutions we could all embrace.
Why is mental health a feminist issue?
Mental health is increasingly being talked about, which is obviously a great step forward. However, there are still many unresolved issues surrounding this topic: access to mental health is unequal, prevention is not prioritized, and dissemination is still scarce. Moreover, mental disorders are still stigmatized and judged as weaknesses; this has contributed to a narrative in which mental health challenges are not perceived as real health problems, especially when it comes to women. Women have often been labelled as “hysterical” and “crazy” to indicate behaviours and emotions that do not conform to social norms. In doing so, women’s mental health has been dismissed, and many behaviours and attitudes have been superficially pathologized.
Furthermore, it’s crucial to point out that mental distress is often perceived as a sign of individual failure, rather than a systemic and social issue.
This fact weighs even more heavily on the shoulders of a woman, already subject to many other sociocultural expectations.
As bell hooks argues, “feminism is for everybody”: in other words, feminism can speak out for all forms of oppression and inequality, with the aim of ending these problems. Since access to mental health care is still unequal and deeply stigmatized, feminism must also tackle the issue of mental health. At this point in time, feminism can address these issues by fighting for gender equality, deconstructing oppressive systems, and advocating for the importance of mental health care for all individuals.
Moreover, research has shown that trans women and women of colour – like most individuals from marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds – are at higher risk of objectification and discrimination based on their gender identity, which can lead to negative mental health outcomes.
Objectification and its main consequences on women’s mental health
Objectification of women is a real thing. It’s about power. It’s about treating women as if they’re less than human.Jessica Valenti
As you may know, objectification happens when an individual is treated as an object and valued mainly for their use by others. Self-objectification, on the other hand, occurs when one internalizes such a perspective, and this comes with a series of consequences.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon The Objectification Theory, written by two American scholars. It basically explains the main negative outcomes we women must face when we are objectified, highlighting the fact that when we internalize this perspective (e.g. when we self-objectify), severe consequences are more likely to develop.
In a nutshell, their research shows that being objectified can produce a range of emotions, including shame and anxiety. These states of mind, along with other factors, can give rise to more serious mental disorders such as depression, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders.
Shame, anxiety and alienation, as well as a sense of powerlessness and lack of control, can all result from objectification, increasing the risk of depression.
Additionally, objectification is also linked to sexual harassment and violence, as women who are objectified are seen as less human and are more vulnerable to mistreatment. All these phenomena can lead to the development of depression.
Feelings of shame and anxiety linked to objectification can affect women’s sexual pleasure.
Sex researchers have shown that body checking, which is a clear consequence of objectification, can lead women to “spectatoring” during sex, meaning they can unconsciously become external observers. This leads to impaired attention, which can undermine women’s sexual satisfaction.
Another consequence of objectification is a compromised interoceptive sensitivity (that is, the ability to perceive internal physical sensations within the body), a great obstacle for reaching orgasms and, more generally, for experiencing pleasure.
Let me make one thing clear though: objectification can also be a consensual and enjoyable sexual practice. Objectified women can be culturally and socially perceived as passive and lacking agency. However, if experienced as a sought-after and desired sexual practice, objectification can become a site where women exercise their free will and agency. In other words, if actively experienced, it is certainly not to be linked to a vision of the passive woman and the dominant man. It’s completely possible to embrace your sexuality and feminist values at the same time. So go ahead, explore your desires, and don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong!
Objectification fuels unrealistic and harmful body standards, compounding the importance of physical appearance. This, along with feelings of shame and pressure, can lead to a sense of never feeling “good enough”, which exposes women to a greater risk of developing eating disorders.
Objectification, Gender Norms, and Mental Health: A Call for Cooperation
Objectification doesn’t only affect women; it also has an impact on men but in different ways and to different extents. Various studies have shown that female objectification is far more prevalent and has more harmful consequences.
It must be emphasized that men also suffer greatly from many gender norms, with profound consequences for their mental health. Many studies highlight the psychological distress that also affects men and, although the motivations may be different, it is useful to cooperate and reflect together on all forms of oppression, with the goal of achieving true equality in well-being.
Nevertheless, female objectification exists and is more common than male objectification because our society is dominated by the male gaze. This is yet more evidence that we still live in a patriarchal society, despite the progress that has been and is being made, and that it is necessary to continue to work towards systemic change aimed at establishing true equality. In this regard, it’s worth exploring how such a system can have negative repercussions not only on women but also on men, non-binary individuals, and everyone in between. By coming together, we can promote change and strive towards a more inclusive and equitable society for all.
In conclusion, if self-love is a life path that we must undergo by our own means, it’s fair to say that Western society places many obstacles in our way. This of course should not be a deterrent in continuing to fight to achieve our goals and raise awareness!
In addition to embracing self-love and advocating for gender equality, it is crucial to know when and where to seek help for mental health issues related to objectification, and here you can find just a couple of examples:
- Hollaback! – A global movement to end harassment in all its forms. They have local chapters around the world, and offer resources and support for those who have experienced objectification and harassment:
- Mind – A UK-based mental health charity that provides information, support, and advice to anyone experiencing mental health issues, including those related to objectification.
- International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) – An organization focused on promoting research, education, and advocacy for women’s sexual health, including issues related to objectification.
Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. By reaching out for support and continuing the fight for change we can work towards a world where mental health is valued and the damaging effects of objectification are minimized.
Written by Viola Vignati.
Originally from Italy, Viola Vignati graduated in Language and cultural studies, with a final dissertation in philosophy of psychiatry and ethnopsychiatry. She is currently taking a gap year -before starting a Master’s in Anthropology- and collaborating with a social cooperative that deals with mental health care. Moreover, she is part of the editorial team of Lazy Women.
Illustrated by Anna Grandin.
Based in Brussels, Anna is an Italian graduate in Foreign Languages and Literature.
She wrote a final thesis about a punk American writer, Katy Acker, with a focus on her attempt to question gender and class roles. At present, she collaborates with an Italian-French publishing house, Maelström Reevolution, and she attends theatre classes. She is passionate about illustration, photography and writing.