Objectification: Portraying people as objects (to be looked at, ogled, or touched), commodities to be purchased, used, discarded, or replaced, or any way that dehumanizes a person.
Sexual objectification refers to the practice of regarding or treating another person merely as an instrument (object) towards one’s sexual pleasure, and a sex object is a person who is regarded simply as an object of sexual gratification.
In a culture with widespread sexual objectification, mass media, advertising, and other cultural representations frequently portray women as objects of a heterosexual male gaze, and more specifically for sexual gratification. Placing women at the center of ogling men, focusing only on body parts, positioning women’s bodies literally as objects, depicting women as something to be touched or groped, using women’s bodies as canvasses, using an object to represent an already objectified body part. Now breast cancer awareness campaigns do the same thing. In addition to sexually objectifying women in the name of breast cancer, slang terminology makes light of the disease [see trivialization]. Many awareness campaigns include multiple modes of objectification simultaneously as you will see in the examples below.
Example 1, An Object of the Heterosexual Male Gaze: What follows are images from a popular “Save the Boobs” public service announcement from the Canadian group Rethink Breast Cancer. Called a “bold and fun” approach to breast cancer awareness, the images use the sexual objectification of women (a commonly used advertising strategy) to get attention.
Showing only part of a sexualized person’s body, with a reminder that Aliya-Jasmine still has a name.
Omission of Aliya-Jasmine’s name to hone in what is most important, a prized part of her sexualized body.
The public service announcement embedded within the video gives a semblance of legitimacy. This is really all about awareness.
The imagery quickly returns to the sexualized object.
Conflating the woman’s breasts with an advertisement for boobyball.
The “Save the Boobs” video focuses viewers’ attention to Aliya-Jasmine Sovani’s breasts (as opposed to Aliya-Jasmine Sovani or the actual disease that is the alleged focus of the awareness campaign. What are viewers “aware of” in campaigns such as this? The normalcy of women’s sexual objectification.
And if there is any question that the American Cancer Society video is about anything other than breasts, just take a look at the URL given at the end of the video.
Example 3, sexualized person represented literally as an object: Advertisements frequently depict women as objects of desire or literally just objects, such as the woman in a Natrelle ad whose body literally forms the shape of a ribbon.
Example 4, an object to be touched: Numerous awareness campaigns use sexual objectification as a “fun” way to bring attention to whatever it is they are selling. Spice Girl Mel B and her husband Stephen Belafonte recently shot a new breast cancer awareness campaign reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s iconic ROLLING STONE cover. The campaign is for the UK-based organization CoppaFeel!, which targets women and men between 18-30 with messages about checking themselves for breast cancer. The image here does not depict breast self exam.
Example 5, woman’s body as canvass: The Breast Cancer Awareness Body Paint Project is an ongoing series designed and created by Michael Colanero and painted by Body artist Keegan. The project involves the painting of breast cancer survivors and a portion of the proceeds is used for fundraising.
Other breast cancer awareness advertisements use similar body displays, such as the Breast Cancer Foundation series from Singapore featuring painted bodies that highlight exposed nipples as a key feature. This advertisement (below) objectifies both the breasts and the buttocks simultaneously.
Example 6, an object once removed: Representations of breasts also stand in for actual breasts in awareness campaigns.
Example 7, an object twice removed: The sexually objectifying imagery is reinforced with trivializing language that further sexually objectifies women. Here is a list of 138 slang words for breasts. How many of them are used in breast cancer awareness campaigns? The following “whatever the name” poster uses more than a few. In using the slang to create the ribbon, it equates linguistic objectification with awareness itself.
In addition to spreading misinformation (as if often the case) and the message that breast cancer is about the breasts instead of the holistic lives of women and men who are diagnosed with, or at risk for, the disease there are a host of reasons why the sexual objectification of women matters. According to Professor Caroline Heldman internalized sexual objectification has been linked to eating disorders, clinical depression, habitual body monitoring and body shame, limited self-worth and life satisfaction, declines in cognitive functioning, motor functioning and sexual dysfunction [PDF], and limited access to leadership roles [PDF] and political efficacy [PDF]. Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent. [See also fear and misinformation.]