The way we dress can be an integral tool for self-expression; from clothes and accessories to body modification. Like any form of creative expression, the interpretation process is left to the audience. The way we dress affects how we are perceived by others, whether we like it or not. Before our words or actions have the chance, our dress communicates something about us to the world. But what speaks louder? the way we dress or what people inadvertently infer from it? While the (usually) unspoken opinions of strangers might not seem like anything to lose sleep over, objectification can lead to all kinds of hateful stigmatization and violence- from reinforcing rape culture to racial and religious genocides. Objectification can manifest in our daily lives in ways we might not expect, that not only dictate how we dress and are perceived by others, but how we behave and understand ourselves.
The Objectifying Gaze
Objectification comes up frequently when we discuss dress, so it’s important to understand the nuances of how it occurs. First and foremost, objectification is as much about the audience as it is about the subject. Through Objectification Theory we know that objectification itself is a product of the objectifying gaze, which is when we try to understand a people in the same way we understand objects- through physical properties alone. What differentiates the objectifying gaze from passive observation is that it denies the objectified person any feelings, rights or personality of their own. We see this in advertising when bodies or body parts, with no apparent link to function, are used to sell a product. In movies, objectification often occurs when we see a person or group of people portrayed as one-dimensional/ stereotyped often with the sole purpose of completing the main character’s story arc or simply as “objects of spectacle” for the viewer.
Studies have found greater rates of sexual objectification towards women dressed “provocatively” (low cut blouse, heels, high slit skirt) than those dressed “conservatively” (blouse fully buttoned, boots, knee length skirt). People surmised, that provocatively dressed models were more likely to engage in sexual teasing, use sex for personal gain, have more sexual experience, and were more likely to be raped. While these judgments are both offensive and potentially dangerous, the process of drawing conclusions on sexual, moral, intellectual or cognitive agency/ ability upon any person based on their dress is inherently wrong. Therefore it seems the problem begins with the audience, not the dress itself.
Another thing that often gets overlooked seems to be the fact that objectification goes beyond sexualization. Our capacity to objectify and be objectified based on the way we dress can be influenced by the most fundamental aspects of dress. Even the colors we wear can lead to objectification, regardless of gender. One study examined how the color black, having associations with death and evil, led to unfair calls among sports teams with black jerseys.
Objectification requires there to be an audience and a subject, which can get more problematic still when we are interacting with ourselves. Not to get conflated with the notion of someone inviting objectification upon themselves (which is nothing other than slut shaming), self-objectification refers to the internalization of the perspective of others therein losing a grasp on one’s own perspective and even reality. While losing touch with reality may sound extreme, consider all the ways that we can be prone to putting the opinions of others before our own when it comes to the way we dress.
Dressing with the goal of being on-trend is one way this can manifest. If you love a trend and feel great rocking it, then by all means, go for it. But having worked many years in retail I can attest to seeing way too many people buying things that they simply did not feel comfortable in, either in an overt attempt to please someone else (often a partner they were shopping with) or an internalized sense of objectification- dressing to be perceived a certain way by others.
These examples may seem harmless but, people tend to perform poorly on tasks immediately following self-objectifying experiences, which can have real-life consequences if the practice becomes deep-rooted. It’s as though the disassociation we create when self-objectifying makes us lose touch with our own capabilities.
Tips to Avoid Day-to-Day Self-Objectification
Although we may have little power over the objectifying lens through which we are portrayed in the media, there are ways we can use our dress as a tool to reinforce our own identities. Here are some simple considerations that can be helpful in recognizing and overcoming self-objectification on a daily basis.
- Be kind and honest with yourself when experimenting with dress
- Before committing to a big change in dress, letting some time pass can be an effective way to determine whether you’re truly confident in the decision
- Giving yourself enough time to get ready before an important event, like a job interview or special social occasion, can reduce anxiety and ultimately gives you more time to change your mind if your mind if you’re feeling indecisive or uncomfortable
- Make sure you’re listening to your own voice, not how you think others might react to your choices
The way we dress has the potential to make us feel really good about ourselves, and even inspire those around us. Whether you like getting “dressed up” or prefer not to take your dress too seriously, how you decorate your body should be in service of your physical and mental well-being- not the other way around. When it comes to the way we dress, we should really put our own feelings and comfort first- we can only control so much of what other people will think.
Tackling self-objectification is the first step towards dressing to make ourselves happy. Beyond that, recognizing that objectification is something the audience brings to the table, not something we bring upon ourselves. With a better understanding of how objectification works, hopefully, we can recognize it when we observe it in the media or comes across instances of it in our personal lives.
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