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Our love-hate relationship with sexual objectification

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

“Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.”

It is an unavoidable truth. You might even say it’s natural. Then why does it make us comfortable? Why do we have a love-hate relationship with sexual objectification? My latest series, I like pretty things, explores our relationship with female objectification in the fashion industry. However to understand the reasons behind our compulsive obsession with the female form we must go back to the beginning and consider the root of all evil: womenkind.

'Love is blind,' 2015, mixed media on paper.

An ancient Greek poet described the first woman, Pandora, as a “beautiful evil”. Having been made by a god, it was predicted that Pandora’s descendants would go on to torment the human race. According to myth, Pandora opened a jar (“Pandora’s box”), releasing all the evils of humanity. Similarly, in the story of Adam and Eve, the woman is blamed for the sins of man. Eve convinced Adam to eat from the forbidden tree and is punished with childbearing and is also held responsible for all the sins of mankind.

Both these stories were written by men and are not supported by scientific evolution. So lets go back further: to the prehistoric age when women first roamed the earth. While men hunted, women gathered food and tended to the children. In this communal life food, and sexual partners were shared. The earliest depictions of the human form are of naked women. Known as Venus figurines, they are thought to represent a goddess – objects of idolisation. These little statues have wide hips, huge breasts, exaggerated sexual organs, tapered legs, and no distinguishing facial features. Are these figurines not the epitome of female sexual objectification? However, rather than having negative connotations, they suggest the celebration of the female body as the creator of life, something to be revered and worshiped. The large breasts of the figurines bring to mind a recent Instagram selfie of Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy breasts that has received over 850,000 likes. It seems that large breasts have been popular for as long as we have walked the earth.

So how did we go from fertility goddess worshipping to blaming all evil on women? In short: we invented farming which lead to individual property ownership. As farming required an immense amount of physical labour, it was the domain of men. Land could be passed down to future generations of men and for the first time paternity became of vital importance. Resultantly, women’s sexual freedom became restricted and women gradually came to be viewed as the property of men: an object to be owned, controlled and possessed. This belief was typical of the ancient Romans who dominated much of Europe for 500 years and was further perpetuated by the Catholic Church for many centuries to follow.

Whilst the reality of life for women over the last 2,000 years has improved dramatically, the ways in which a woman’s sexuality is criticised and scrutinised reveals that in some ways our attitudes have not changed. In today’s society a woman can own property, earn money and are no longer dependant on men, and yet there still exists hangovers from the early days of civilisation when the division of labour resulted in the subjugation of women.

So it seems we still have a way to go when it comes to sexual equality for women. But one thing that is unlikely to change: men (and women) like looking at women. Let’s face it: women are beautiful! Rather than abominating it, why not embrace it? Why not value women for what they contribute to society, including, but not limited to, their sexuality, beauty and givers of life? Our obsession with youth and beauty is innate and will not be undone. However, what can be undone is our perception that overt female sexuality is bad or that women have no value beyond being sexual objects of desire for men. These are attitudes that can be changed, and should be changed. A female’s body should be revered and her sexual expression respected.

Women can be simultaneously sensual and intelligent, feminine and outspoken, and ambitious yet motherly, like Kim Kardashian. If we can thank Kim Kardashian for anything (apart from voluptuous cleavage photos), it’s her contribution to the advancement of a woman’s right to sexual expression. So thank you, Kim Kardashian, for being my real life Venus figurine.

"I like pretty things" is a series of illustrations about the objectification of women created by Leah Mariani 2015 -2016. See website for more details.

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