Can Objectification Be Empowering?

I am always attentive to visual politics. I notice and think about acts of looking, being looked at, putting oneself on display. The gym is a realm of exhibition—more than it is a zone of exercise—and many people go there to work out their eyes as well as their guns. The other day I was in a spin class, pedalling away on my favourite stationary bike in the designated mirror-clad room, taking in a plethora of layered images. The shiny surface in front of me reflected the mirrored column located behind and to the left of me, which itself revealed the adjacent transparent windows opening onto the expansive weight room. There I spied Eye Candy #2 resting on a bench, doing shoulder presses while carefully monitoring his form in yet another mirror. I revelled in voyeurism, for the complex angles ensured that he could not see me watching him. I would not have stopped looking even if he had been aware of my steely gaze. Although forbidden elsewhere, lingering uninhibited scrutiny is allowed at the gym. My only regret was that Eye Candy #2 was seated, for I quite enjoy the way he walks, with the rolling gait of an awkward farmer. I sometimes imagine him holding a pitchfork and wearing overalls, worn-out gloves stuffed in the back pocket. Obviously I do not know much about modern farming, but while performing stalls that strained my already tired quads I visualized certain deeds involving him, the smell of fresh soil, and not much talking. It was a special Saturday morning as you can imagine. Unfortunately, that weird guy who wears a hoodie and intermittently breaks into pseudo-hip-hop dance moves thought I was actually staring at him. In the end, I wondered how my lascivious gaze was making me appear to a third party who was in fact of no visual interest to me. Such is the delightfully tangled web of group exercise.  

This spin class offered a microcosm of everyday life, which largely consists of multiple surfaces, mistaken identity, and misdirected desire. Since I have taken a few film theory courses I am authorized to declare that desire is typically aroused when you see, or think you see, someone else desiring you. Driven by vision, desire develops elsewhere, in an external source, from an-other whose intentions you invent. Identity is formed through similar and repeated mistakes, when we look to others to envision ourselves, creating our ego as a necessary fiction. At this point I will refrain from becoming a second year graduate student and reciting a version of Lacan’s mirror stage. In any case, we don’t need to read about winking sardine cans to realize that human interactions are based on preexisting sets of misapprehension. We never engage in immediate or direct communication outside of such forces as social mediation, memories of past events, intertextual references, and the weighty materiality of language. We never really know what another person is seeing or hearing or thinking, whether they are good friends, long-suffering lovers, or silent strangers who consensually throw us down on prickly bales of hay. Relationships are formed when mutually beneficial misconstructions meet, and are sustained until someone makes the wrong mistake instead of the right one and it all falls apart. I hope I am not depressing you, because I consider this realization to be exhilarating, and it pretty much describes how I live in the world. Bored yet?

Being looked at, and seeing onself being seen, are necessary to human survival. If you want to insult someone, just ‘blank’ them by failing to notice, and they will cease to exist. This is my forte. Historically and culturally specific acts of looking (and not looking) are powerful, something long realized by many, including Michel Foucault—yep him again—and numerous feminist theorists, including Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, and Griselda Pollock. While all feminists think about shifting constructions of gender, some early theorists argued that in the western visual tradition women have mostly been portrayed as objects offered up to a male gaze, a privileged stance that both men and women can adopt periodically depending on their class, racial, ethnic, and/or sexual identity. Subsequent thinkers developed more complex understandings of the gaze, formulating arguments about suture, identification, resistance, and so forth. Why am I nattering on about this? Because during my heady days in graduate school—when I wasn’t making ass-kissing bids for admiration or looking up recipes for competitive pot luck dinners—I was learning how to recognize, name, and refute the gaze, especially when it objectified women. Now, however, instead of finding ways to historicize and ‘problematize’ looking, I am researching the best hair extensions and make-up artists, while preparing to prance around in an expensive but nevetheless hideous posing suit. As I sit here pondering this feminist dilemma I am in fact wearing a small string bikini—a cheap pink and black one—with high heels. What the fuck am I doing?

Your gaze hits the side of my face, and I fucking love it!

Life is riddled with contradiction, but this one is weighing on me. Just last night I dreamed about being on stage, except that it was more like a dog show than a figure competition. Rather than evaluating my mandatory poses with their eyes, the judges ran their hands over my body, testing the straightness of my spine before checking the state of my teeth. I don’t recall receiving treats for good behaviour—I would have been pleased to have yogurt-covered organic almonds pulled from a pocket and quickly tossed into my mouth—and my ‘tail’ was not lifted for closer inspection. At least not that I recall. I might have repressed that part of this disturbing dream. I don’t need Freud to realize that I remain ambivalent about my upcoming figure contest. No that’s wrong: Feminst Figure Girl + Freud = 2gether 4ever.  

Several months ago an ass-kicking feminist philosopher took a slow sip of coffee before looking me in the eye and asking: ‘What’s feminist about Feminist Figure Girl?’ I laughed in an ashamed way, admitting that I did not yet know. I eventually realized that it’s me; I am the feminist aspect of this research. With this project I am testing my training, previous education, and presumptions. By experimenting with objectification, I embrace the discomfort of conformity, finding—much to my surprise—that it often feels great. Who knew that following the rigid rules of conventional ‘hotness’ could be so challenging and fun at the same time? Yet I remain unsure about what to make of my newfound efforts to become a sexualized object, nor do I have fancy theoretical explanations for the pleasures being produced along the way. It is definitely not just a choice to become an object, and I am not in control of the process, wielding some kind of ‘girl power.’ Am I ‘hiding in the light,’ deliberately exaggerating the gendered role expected of me in order to expose how ridiculous it is, in keeping with Dick Hebdige’s explanation of the posturing of punk girls in 1970s England? Or am I a dupe, like that female engineering student at the University of Waterloo who posed in a bikini to celebrate her ‘feminist’ contribution to the Formula SAE team? ‘How is that any different from what you are doing?’ I can hear the cries of outrage already. Well, unlike me this woman is working in a male-dominated practice, she is young and trying to enter a profession that involves brains not sexy bodies, at least in theory. In contrast, I am an old wizened female professor who is well established and while on stage will send a shout out to all fellow egg-heads in the audience, who will no doubt be watching a bodybuilding competition for the very first time, soaking it in like avid anthropologists. All the same, there may be similarities that I am currently unwilling to face. Hmmm… I guess I will have to keep thinking until the project is finished, after I have had my few moments on stage and have experienced the ‘aftermath.’ I should indeed wait until I am done with this fucking diet, which gives me diet brain, making it difficult to think about much of anything. I am now 20 pounds down and 20 IQ points stupider, so get ready for more baffle-filled posts in the future. Teaser: next week’s post is, in my currently confused opinion, my best ever and it addresses a scintillating topic that is sure to please, namely cod. 

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 49-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

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