Are Soccer Players Fair Game for Objectification? (Part I)

5172-andres.iniesta-thumb-250x231-5171.jpgThis is the third in a series of posts about the 2010 World Cup.

During the World Cup, anyone with access to a TV was able to watch the world’s best soccer players in action, but for some, “ogle” would have been a better word.  Among the foremost offenders were sites like Jezebel and Cosmopolitan, with the former posting “Thighlights” and shirtless shots under the tag “shameless objectification,” and the latter compiling a slideshow of “The Hottest World Cup Players” which was saturated with not-so-subtle sexual innuendo. Apparently it dawned on some that this same behavior toward women would be considered less than polite, for midway through the tournament, a post appeared at Jezebel defending this double standard.

The author laid out five points as to why this behavior wasn’t hypocritical. Three of the points apply just as easily to women athletes (I’m thinking especially of women’s beach volleyball, which has become increasingly sexualized) and therefore give no strength to the argument: these athletes are healthy and achieved this level of fitness naturally (point 2), they are willingly doing something they enjoy (point 4), and there are no racial boundaries (point 3). However, the author of the post clearly states that she would be up in arms if someone had been posting photos of female athletes’ body parts for men to stare at. What is it, then, that differentiates woman-ogling from man-ogling? The punch comes in points 1 and 5 – apparently it is all about historical context and equal access. Men have historically had, and arguably still do have, the upper hand in physically objectifying, and women have suffered the consequences, from workplace harassment to rape and even sex slavery: so, the argument goes, it’s only fair that we women reverse the roles.

I will first discuss the alarmingly unsound reasoning behind this point, and then in Part II, address one argument that comes closest to allowing us to express our admiration for these athlete’s bodies without falling into the trap of physical objectification. 

As a working definition, by “physical objectification” I mean viewing someone as being primarily, even if not solely, a body with a certain level of physical attractiveness (or unattractiveness, as the case may be). To physically objectify someone is to forget that the body is part of a person with thoughts, feelings, dignity, and a life; it is instead to take them, whether for a moment or for a lifetime, as being mainly an object for your viewing pleasure. I say “physical objectification” to distinguish it from other types of objectification, such as “social objectification,” where you might treat another person in a certain way just in order to climb the next rung on the social or corporate ladder (toolishness, anyone?).

First, to call the behavior exhibited by Jezebel and Cosmopolitan acceptable or even healthy is alarming because they are not only endorsing but actively contributing to the damage done to both men and women through physical objectification. On the women’s side, this makes it easier for those who view women as primarily sexual objects to justify their behavior: they can now deny that their behavior is inherently problematic. All they need to do is wait for or manufacture situations which fit certain criteria like those in the Jezebel post, and then they  can proceed with a clear conscience. For women themselves, the idea that they are somehow empowered by practicing the same behavior that has hurt and continues to hurt them (point 5) is seriously misguided; this implies that society will only be fair once everyone can objectify and be objectified. Point 5 in particular embraces the childish mindset of, to put it colloquially, “Yeah, well, you did it first, so now we’re even.” 

On the men’s side, it seems to be consistently overlooked that men have human psychologies as well and are not immune to the attitudes of the people and society around them. The young man sitting in a bar who hears the cheering and catcalls whenever Landon Donovan or Cristiano Ronaldo take off their shirts will not be unaffected – he may wonder if he needs to work out or show off his body more in order for women to be interested in him. While it is true that men have historically suffered fewer of the emotional, physical, and social consequences of physical objectification than women have, those consequences are not fixed – the damage can and will increase as attitudes like these are practiced and encouraged. And judging by the aforementioned websites and their readership, these attitudes have already taken a firm hold at the societal level.

To be continued….