Several days ago, I outlined the problem of physical objectification, specifically in the context of the “ogling” that became something of an international pastime during the World Cup, and criticized the arguments that some proponents of this behavior had offered in their defense. I would now like to give a brief treatment of the question that naturally follows, i.e. whether it is possible for us to express our admiration for these athlete’s bodies without falling into the trap of physical objectification.
For it does seem too extreme to say that we need to strive to become unresponsive to the attractiveness, strength, and beauty of those around us in order to minimize the chances of physical objectification. Rather, one might protest, we should be at least be able to admire these athlete’s bodies from an aesthetic point of view, the way one might appreciate Michelangelo’s David, or state with an air of scientific observation, “He is objectively hot.” Could we even relax those standards further and allow ourselves to say, “Check out those abs!” while claiming, “I’m just appreciating a healthy, athletic body, that’s all!”
I would answer: yes, depending on the attitude and intention of the first type of exclamation and the sincerity of the second. It may be possible to “objectively appreciate” an athlete’s physical attractiveness, but it only takes a small step in the wrong direction to stop thinking of that athlete as a person and start thinking of them as an attractive body to make raunchy comments about and drool over. The solution, I think, is something of a mental balancing act: when you find yourself visually focusing on someone’s awe-inspiring six-pack or gawking at them as a whole, keep reminding yourself that this is a living, breathing person with the dignity of the individual. While holding those two different attitudes in your mind’s eye, bring them into an equilibrium that will keep not just your vocal comments but also your thoughts respectful of that person. It is important to note that even without the element of sexuality, one can begin the process of reducing a person to their physical appearance, judging them based on their weight or the attractiveness of certain body parts. This is not something that we only have to worry about with gorgeous celebrities and athletes on our TV/computer screen – this is a balance we need to strike with our significant others, co-workers, and even strangers on the street.
It is a fine line to walk between appreciative admiration and dehumanizing objectification, but that does not mean we can ignore it. The goal line on a soccer pitch is relatively narrow, but, as the World Cup has shown, this does not stop a global obsession with getting the ball on one side of the line rather than the other.