Last week, I sat through a women’s studies lecture on body image. Thanks to the comprehensive health education I received throughout middle and high school, I was already familiar with most of the material. I knew anorexia’s telltale signs, and I understand that binge eating is considered an eating disorder alongside bulimia. Body Mass Index is a misguided way to measure if someone is a healthy weight or not, and dieting almost never, ever produces sustainable, long-term weight loss.

I’ll admit that it wasn’t until we arrived on the PowerPoint slide about objectification that I sat up in my chair and started to actively listen. I already knew what objectification was — when society views the female body as an object, as opposed to a whole being that’s lived in and experienced — and I knew that it’s definitely not a good thing. Objectification is dangerous for a whole host of reasons: It lowers women’s self-esteem and makes us believe that our value is tied to our physicality, sometimes leading us to eating disorders as a desperate attempt to maintain a “desirable” figure. When women are reduced to objects, violence against us is internalized as normal, and both men and women dehumanize us and see us as less competent.

But this isn’t even the worst part. For me, the most disturbing trend stemming from objectification is when women turn this practice onto themselves. Some women tend to objectify their own bodies by internalizing a third-person’s perspective of themselves, something that, according to a survey published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, leads to decreased cognitive performance, increased feelings of shame and anxiety, and restrained eating. Just like advertisements that gruesomely dismember a woman’s body to isolate sexualized parts, we sometimes look in mirrors and chop ourselves up, too, falling victim to the notion that our body is not a holistic experience, but merely a collection of things — legs, bust, torso — that can each be isolated and, in turn, scrutinized. 

This is the element of objectification that quite literally took my breath away, but not because it was surprising. Like most of the lecture material, I was already familiar with objectification theory. I had learned about it in my middle school health courses when I was 13, and although I understood its pervasive and damaging effects at the time, I remember that I never really wrapped my head around it. In eighth grade, I had yet to truly experience body surveillance and shaming. At the risk of sounding obnoxious, at 13, I didn’t have a single reason to be self-conscious of my body. I had grown up athletic, pretty, confident and so outspoken I verged on loudmouth. Because I wasn’t embarrassed of my body in the slightest bit, the notion of systematically and relentlessly surveying my figure for flaws was so far from reality. I easily dismissed self-objectificationn as inapplicable. So when the bell rang on the last day of school in June 2008, I didn’t think critically about self-objectification and wouldn’t until it eventually became my own reality.

Fast forward to Wednesday of last week. I’m 21 now, and am hyperaware and self-conscious of my looks. I didn’t realize how often I self-objectified until my professor forced me to face it head-on with two simple questions. First, how often do you look in a mirror? As she counted upwards, 1, 2, 3 … to as many times as you walk by anything reflective, I kept my hand raised. Second, when you look in the mirror, what are you looking for? Are you seeing if your hair or makeup is in place, or are you focusing in on a part of your body? My face burned. I felt so embarrassed. I felt so superficial.

It was like my professor was reading my mind. Every morning when I get up, I stand in front of my mirror and look at my stomach. It’s my least favorite part of my body, and I vigilantly watch it to see if it looks bloated. I’ll lift up my shirt and look at it, then stand sideways and see how much it sticks out. I’ll search carefully to see if that late-night piece of pizza settled anywhere on my hips. Isolating my stomach is part of my morning routine, and it’s a textbook example of self-objectifying.

I can’t wholly blame “society” for relentlessly pressuring me to look a certain way, and the source of my body image issues is more complicated than glossy magazines that equate beautiful to thin. Everyday, I internalize conflicting signals telling me to both love my body, but at the same time constantly work to improve it. That I should adore the skin I’m in, but to make sure that skin is waxed, clear and made desirable with a host of products. When I look at my stomach, part of me is admiring my curves, while the other part is desperately ensuring that they never, ever soften with time (or pizza). Although my mirror survey could be seen as partially congratulatory, treating my body as something that must maintained to look a specific way is degrading, and now, at 21, I finally get it. If eighth-grade Annie could see me in the morning in front of my mirror, she’d probably shove me, tell me to knock it off and to quit being so vain.

My surveillance is not healthy, and it took last Wednesday’s lecture to realize that it’s more than just a dumb habit — it’s detrimental to my overall self-worth and confidence. I must work harder to view my body not as a collection of parts, but as a whole, spiritual being that can combat the onslaught of messages telling me my worth is measured in pounds and inches. Last Wednesday’s lecture made me realize that I was more confident at 13 with braces and zits than I am today, and frankly, that’s just backwards. It’s about time I change that.

Anne Katz can be reached amkatz@umich.edu.

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