Caroline Heldman’s talk, “The Sexy Lie,” at TEDxYouth in San Diego tackled the very prevalent issue of sexual objectification—specifically, the idea that being sexually objectified is empowering. TED talks have gained a reputation for showcasing intelligent people presenting various enlightenments and challenges to their listeners, and Heldman does not disappoint. Her twelve-minute talk is concisely accurate without losing any of its poignancy. 

 Heldman starts by defining sexual objectification. “Sexual objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure,” Heldman states. This definition seems like something out of a textbook (who knows, it might be), and can still leave a lot of questions as how one can identify sexual objectivity. Thankfully Heldman created a list of questions to ask when looking at an image (specifically advertisements, but the questions are applicable elsewhere). For example: does the image show only parts of a sexualized person’s body? Does a part stand in for the whole? Does the image suggest that the sexual availability of the person is the defining characteristic of that person? Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity that can be bought and sold? If the answer to any of these is yes, then it is a sexually objectifying image. 

 “When we’re thinking about sex objects, we’re thinking about object/subject dichotomy. Subjects act, objects are acted on,” Heldman says, “so even if you become the perfect sex object, you are perfectly subordinate because that position will always be acted on. So there’s not power in being a sex object when you think about it logically.” She goes on to assert that sex doesn’t sell.

 “Something else is being sold here,” she says. “To men, they’re being sold this idea constantly that they are sexual subjects. They are in the driver’s seat. It makes them feel powerful to see images of objectified women everywhere. And for women, we are being sold this idea that this is how we get our value and this is the way to become the ideal sex object. So we see men’s magazines with scantily clad women and we see women’s magazines with scantily clad women.” 

 The ramifications can be very severe, including increased depression, habitual body monitoring (thinking of your body position, who’s looking at you, who isn’t), eating disorders, body shame, depressed cognitive function, and sexual disfunction. That’s right. Self-objectifying gets in the way of sexual pleasure. 

 What can we do? How can you fight it? Stop consuming damaging materials (like fashion magazines.) Stop competing with other women. Stop seeking attention for your body. “We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environment,” Heldman says, “we raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved.” What would happen if women viewed their bodies as tools to better the world? What would happen if all that time, energy, and money used to perfect one’s self was focused on, say, poverty or human trafficking? 

Heldman’s talk, really, is a great cry for action. You can watch her entire talk here, although be advised that reading the comment section will only aggravate one’s soul.

Tagged in: TED talk, sexuality, Sexual objectification, Sex, Caroline Heldman   

The opinions expressed on the BUST blog are those of the authors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the position of BUST Magazine or its staff.




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