What are friends for? One thing Sam and I do for each other sometimes is teach each other’s classes. It’s easy because we have lots of overlapping interests, so it’s almost no extra work to throw something together. Last night I talked to Sam’s Gender and Fashion class about fitness, fashion, and the sexualization of women in sport. I gave a similar talk last year, but this time Sam added a more theoretical reading on objectification and why it’s harmful to the person(s) objectified.
The students were smart and engaged, and had some good things to say about “What’s So Bad about Pink Anyway?” “Nipple Phobia,” “Play Hard, Look Cute,” and “No way am I wearing that! Body conscious clothing as a barrier to entry to women’s sports.”
When I asked about the social meaning of pink, one student said that its associations with normative femininity mean that it’s not the most empowering colour choice for fitness wear. Yes! My point exactly.
I’m sure at least a few people didn’t believe me when I said bras didn’t used to be padded — that padding was an extra, not the norm, and not even an option in sport bras (remember?). But heads started nodding when I talked about all the diffferent ways we now shame women for their bodies: “headlights,” “camel toe,” “muffin tops,” “back fat.” It’s so hard to be socially acceptable. And yet women’s athletic clothing is almost exclusively body-clinging. It’s a tough balance to navigate if you’re not young, lean and thin, but even that doesn’t spare you from nipples and camel toe.
We spent a lot of time on beach volleyball, where the women’s skimpy bikinis stand in stark contrast to the men’s baggy shorts and tank tops. Students went both ways on the question of whether it was okay if, given a choice, the athletes would continue to choose the bikinis. Though one student thought that the choice made sense because it was a beach, the point was also made that it’s hard not to “choose” to continue in the skimpy swimsuit when you know that’s the expectation and you want people to continue to watch your sport.
So what’s wrong with sexually objectifying women who are athletes. Well, for one thing, objectification of any kind goes against a very widely endorsed principle from philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant said that we should never treat people as a means only. What he meant by that is that no matter what sort of interaction we’re having with someone, we must always treat them also as a person, not just an object or thing or tool or instrument for our own use. That’s a powerful idea that not many people would reject.
There are a range of ways of treating someone as an object, which is essentially what it is to objectify them, and they’re not all sexual. The three ways that came into play in class discussion of women in sport were: instrumentality, fungability, and denial of subjectivity. Instrumentality because in objectifying women athletes, they’re being treated as if they are simply instruments for use — in most cases sexual use. Fungability because one body is replaceable by another, as long as they fulfill the same purpose, perhaps as an object of sexual fantasy. And denial of subjectivity because in objectifying these athletes, their experiences and feelings aren’t even a consideration.
Now clearly there is more to be said (and more was said) on the issue of objectification. And of course, as one student pointed out, it’s not always and only women who are sexually objectified in sport. She noted that David Beckham, for example, is often presented in a highly sexualized manner that has nothing to do with his skill as a soccer player. I’m not sure if I was the only one who thought that there are relevant differences between social assumptions about masculine sexuality and feminine sexuality that might make the sexualization of women worse. But I did raise that as a possibility worth considering.
Class went well. Not the best ever, but I enjoyed the students even though it was the end of a very long day for me (I’d already taught for three hours earlier in the day). It’s always enjoyable to meet students in other classes and to engage with them as a guest lecturer on a topic that’s fun to talk about.
Thanks for the opportunity, Sam!