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“Hey sexy, love your hair!”
Within minutes of reactivating a popular dating app, my inbox was filled with countless repetitive outbursts of apparent admiration and appreciation.
I could feel the scratching of frustration in my chest burning from the innards of my heart. The irritation ignited a heat with remnants from my chest to my throat. The effect was like sitting by a campfire and inhaling hot smoke.
My body felt these words for what they were: sexual objectification and meta-dehumanization.
I wanted to talk about a man’s hobbies, dreams, passions, goals, interests, and what was important to him. I wanted to highlight my intelligence, accomplishments, energy, experiences, and emotions.
I would have literally appreciated any other topic than my f*cking hair.
We have been collectively primed to believe that the most important aspect of a woman is our appearance. So pervasively so, that by the age of 12 we tend to focus on what our body looks like over what it can do.
Becoming an aesthetic or erotic object of desire is rarely the goal of any young girl when we ask her what she wants to be when she grows up.
Yet, with 75 percent of compliments we receive in our lifetimes centered around our appearances, and the average woman being confronted with sexually objectifying comments and behaviors on a near daily basis, that’s most often what we become.
My childhood was spent on a farm, where I was mostly immune to the cultural conditioning of broader society.
My utility was the opposite of my body or face. A farm kid is valued for work, problem-solving, contribution, and discipline: it means something to complete a task, help out, and get the job done.
My hair was not only beside the point but also: our town had only one hairdresser. Most of the ladies from age 5 to 85 had versions of the same cut, only updated when the stylist went on a continuing education seminar.
Practicality was the order of the day—every day.
I was seen as fully capable, the focus put on my honor roll grades and successful extracurricular life.
It was thus an utter shock when I moved to the city at 17 and heard sexuality dripping from a man’s voice; his words focused on my visual appearance:
“You’re drop-dead gorgeous, baby.”
“Sweetie, you’re beautiful!”
“You’re so easy on the eyes, sexy!”
This stranger’s lust for my appearance seemed violating. I felt confused, scared, angry, and hollow by this personal interaction.
I didn’t want to engage on the topic of my supposed sexiness. And I also didn’t know how not to.
We have acculturated boys to focus on the female body as a form of personal art: something to acquire and admire as a means of not only elevating status but also of achieving pleasure.
And the Seventeen magazines I read in the basement with my sister on the farm taught me that I was supposed to see this attention as positive: this was my “power” and the key to accessing the attention I would need in order to garner dates and enter a relationship.
Yet, in practice, I didn’t quite know what to say in response to becoming a utility to achieving someone else’s needs and goals.
I clumsily tried to play along, awkwardly accepting what I could, and ignoring what I could not as I was gazed at and inspected, absorbing the dehumanization embedded in the system of patriarchy.
The cost of such a connection is a woman’s humanity.
How are we to prepare a young woman for a lifetime of separation from our thoughts, feelings, and desires?
We not only cannot, but we should not have to.
Much as female erotic capital is held up as a standard of female “empowerment” and “liberation,” we need to see it for what it is: dehumanizing, disrespectful, and condescending.
Researchers found that appearance-related comments have the same increases in body shame and surveillance in women who claim to find it empowering or complimentary than those who do not prefer it.
And guys, pay attention: the perceived likability and desirability for affiliation in a man who is not our chosen romantic partner drops after a sexually objectifying comment.
Men are much better off participating in conversations about hobbies, dreams, passions, goals, interests. (I did not know this back then.)
As the years progressed, it seemed that appearance played into my social, economic, sexual, and work-related outcomes.
I remember getting hired for a pivotal role and being told: “you look the part,” by the male decision-maker, meaning I’d been hired for my face.
As a single woman, I noted that men’s responsiveness increased if I followed pleas to dress provocatively, positioned myself suggestively, plied snapshots, and entertained sexualized comments, even if I didn’t know them.
Yet, the more emphasis was placed on accessing my body, face, hair, and smile, the more self-conscious and focused I became on placing my physical appearance at the center of someone else’s concern. I was afraid I might be fired or demoted if I stopped “looking the part” or die a spinster if I didn’t catch a male’s attention.
I worked out, painted my nails, primed, dieted, and obsessed.
We’ve convinced the very objects of dehumanization to participate in our own objectification.
And the price of admission is emotional distress, body shame, cognitive declines, and self-objectification.
I grew weary of holding the weight of responsibility for being a decoration and item of pleasure, no matter that my profile outlined that I had established myself as a professional, a mother, and a business owner.
I blamed myself and attempted to dress in ways that would garner fewer comments and achieve less attention.
I effortfully modified my body weight, experimenting with what might allow me to walk down the street without feeling eyes staring at my bum.
And after stumbling on a study of the dehumanizing impact of sexual objectification on women, I remember telling a man that I “had no interest in what a complete stranger thought of my smile.”
Truer words were never spoken.
How do we respond to continued dehumanization in a culture that both trumpets equal rights and progress while we simultaneously sexualize and objectify the very same gender?
We cannot, and we should not have to.
“Hey, sexy” makes us want to delete the match, guys.
Here are seven things we want instead:
1. We want to turn up the conversation around dehumanization, collectively bringing awareness to the cost of these interactions.
2. We want to be open in expressing that we neither like nor appreciate dehumanization in disguise. We don’t want to be around those who sexualize us when we don’t know them, and we want to be able to say it aloud.
3. We want to be supported in processing our shame, discomfort, and anger of being culturally less than.
4. We want to be held in respect, which means focusing on our intelligence, accomplishments, energy, experiences, and emotions.
5. We want access to power that’s not gained through erotic capital.
6. We want to be seen as fully human.
7. We want to get our hair out of the f*cking conversation.