The internet, self-objectification, and untimely beginnings

Social media has taught women to self-objectify — let’s stop doing it.

Kim Kardashian (Image: Instagram)

I have some notifications. Ooh. New messages.

From “zenromantic”: “You have passed my rigorous entrance exam. You may talk to my Dad. Mazel tov!”

I blink at the screen. Well. This is new.

After trying the traditional way to meet people to date (talking to them in person), I have decided I am tired of explaining my nine-month “Modesty Experiment” — a feminist effort to redefine how I see myself. My hair, arms, and legs are covered and I don’t wear makeup — these are the parameters of the Experiment — but I’ve made no behavioral changes at all. I joke that I should just carry around a PowerPoint with me, I am so sick of telling people why I both cover my hair and swear like a sailor. Instead, I explain myself via profile and hope that whomever contacts me has read that yes, I am in seminary; and no, I am not anti-evolution. Yes, I am a feminist; no, I do not hate men. Yes, I dress modestly; no, I am not a virgin. I am simply not wearing “The Beauty Suit.”

Which has led to this cute but confusing message from what looks, from the profile picture, like a huge guy in a Jeep with multicolored hair. Well, more accurately, from his 13-year-old daughter.

In the coming months I will find out that on the way to school in the morning, she reads him profiles from OKCupid, which she made him sign up for after his divorce. If she gets all the way to the end of the profile without him saying, “Ew” or “Nope,” she emails the woman. Hence, the entrance-exam comment. (I wish I could explain why she used mazel tov, though. Neither of them is Jewish.) He knows I am a progressive religious feminist, but he has not even seen my face when she emails me.

We’ve been messaging for weeks, not yet meeting up, when he throws a party at his house. He invites me: it would be a good way to meet, without any pressure.

He is downstairs playing the bass in the garage band he heads up. I am upstairs when another guest turns on HBO’s Real Sex in the background, and I watch forlornly as women spin around poles in thongs and talk about how empowering it is. I mutter something about, “Oh, not this bullshit again.”

“What was that?” says a voice behind me.

I turn around, and it’s the guy from OKCupid. He’s staring down at me with interest. Not sexual interest; he actually wants to know what I’ve said.

I am stone-cold sober, but before I can moderate my response my voice comes pouring out of me: no high, wheedling “please like me” whine; no question marks at the ends of sentences; all opinion and perspective and, yeah, self-righteousness; and no, I am not smiling or trying, at all, to make sure he’s comfortable. I think I finish with “I’m just tired of being told that the best way for me to be empowered is to take my clothes off.”

He doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t look scared or confused (or bored). Instead, he sits down on the staircase. After a second he says, “Well, but that’s not the only way to be empowered. Is it?”

If he said anything at all about this, I was expecting something like what practically every guy has said about the Experiment so far: “Ha, ha. Tell me how you really feel!” or, “Hey, who are you to tell those women how to express their sexuality?” Instead, he actually states his opinion, and then he asks me what I think. When he talks with me, he wants to know what I believe, not how to make me like him. I have never, in my life, been reacted to this way by a man.

I blink at him. Who is this guy?

I’ve struggled for five years with how to include our meet-cute story into my own feminist narrative because of how it’s likely to be interpreted by traditionalists: that dressing modestly finally brought me the love of my life, so obviously, women should cover up to meet “good” men. I decided to tell folks the truth about my husband’s arrival in my life during the Experiment, though, because it shows that technology can be a way to lie about our perfection; or, it can be a way to tell the truth.

As Congress asks questions of Mark Zuckerberg which demonstrate their total inability to grasp Facebook’s reach, and as everyday-women-turned-“Instagram models” are paid to endorse makeup brands, the rise of social media has taught all of us — women in particular — something new: how to self-objectify. Previously, Americans were constantly exposed to idealized versions of life through advertising. For women, that meant a constant onslaught of pubescent white girls, mostly naked and photoshopped into unrecognizability, by some estimates, more than a hundred times a day.

Now, social media has combined with the brand of pop feminism which teaches that looking hot and being liberated are the same thing, and self-objectification has become a way of life, a shorthand for cultural relevance. Women take selfies and polish them until we look flawless. We talk about our perfect lives in status updates and tweets. We curate our online selves to be idols, to be worshipped by others, but mostly by ourselves. I speak from personal experience, and I know how much fun it is.

But it’s a lie, and we all know it.

During the Modesty Experiment, the only way I could get dateable men to understand who I truly was without repeating the same lines again and again was to put it all out there online. My outside didn’t match my inside — at least, not in modern-day secular America — so the online profile was more expedient than wasting time on confused bros at parties. In my case, my online presence was telling the truth about me; it was the cultural interpretation of modest dress that was a lie.

And yes, I received ignorant messages on OKCupid from guys wanting to explain to me why what I was doing was unfeminist and how they actually understood religion or feminism better than I did, despite simply being dudes with a passing interest in said topics, and would I like to get a drink so “we” (read: he) could talk about it? But no matter what women do, online or in real life, we get that kind of response. In 2011 there wasn’t a word for it, but now it’s called mansplaining.

Here’s something odd: it actually felt good to be told I was wrong for standing up for something instead of being told I was wrong just for being (too fat, ugly, prude, a tease, and so on). Somehow, putting who I really was out there, and being yelled at for that, was easier than trying to put a perfect self out there and still not being good enough.

As of today, we still associate covering, whether that’s a headscarf or even a long skirt, as oppression. This means that self-objectification is still shorthand for “liberation.” But the online world also offers women a new frontier. We can use it to fortify the idea that only women who conform to narrow beauty standards, and who self-objectify, are worthy of the label empowered; or we can tell the truth about ourselves and see what happens.

I can tell you from personal experience, it might be worth it, but only if you choose it freely. I’m glad I met my husband online and I would not have if I hadn’t been so honest in my profile… but the comments on the blog I ran and the Facebook page I have about the Experiment sometimes make me want to claw my eyes out.

On the other hand, feminism has a louder voice than ever because brave women get online, every day, and fight the Twitter trolls, and write articles, and explain, yet again, why telling us to smile is not the innocuous gesture men are trained to believe it is. When our friends say sexist stuff online, we can send them links to articles, rather than having to sit down with them and expend yet more psychological energy on living in a world where emotional labor is women’s work. (If we’re at the stage where we’re having to send them articles, they probably aren’t the kind of people who’ll read said articles anyway. But at least they can’t claim they don’t have access to the information.)

I wonder what would happen if women limited the time we spent on social media as a feminist act. Could we train ourselves to stop self-objectifying and learn other ways to self-soothe? Could we learn to notice when we’re walking through the park thinking, “I have to tweet about this,” and then think, “No,” and reach out and touch the grass instead, because our lives are not products to be consumed?

Online attention feels good. And an internet presence is necessary socially and professionally, and that’s not likely to change. But there’s got to be a way to engage with the ever-expanding world of technology that doesn’t just saddle women with a digital Beauty Suit, another set of expectations to satisfy, another way to make life more fun for dudes while our own precious time disappears down the drain.

The human brain is nothing if not plastic. We can learn.

This is an excerpt from Lauren Shields‘ upcoming book, “The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist,” published by Beacon Press, available May 15, 2018.

Lauren Shields is an improv comedian and progressive pastor living in San Jose, California.

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  • Liliana

    This article was a mess and unrelatable. You have the opportunity to write for one of the best radical feminist websites and but spent most of the article talking about dating men and random details about men. Bummer.

    • Janice Holiday

      Lol, yeah during half the article, I expected a break through like guide for women who self objectify themselves to unplug but got nothing. How to stop objectifying yourself would have been way more helpful. I felt like I just read a Cosmo article, ending with I’m so glad I met my husband. That’s great but how does that help others or make a light turn on? The organization of this writing confused me.

  • ExceptionallyAnonymous

    Really F.C.? Next step is long live the self erasure of women under veils aka Saudi Arabia and rural USA are progressive ?

    • Meghan Murphy

      Seems a bit of a hyperbolic response, no?

    • I found out recently that back in the old days, kings in the Arab Empire sat behind veils in public because the public wasn’t good enough to see their faces. It was a way of being more impressive. So maybe it wasn’t so sexist for women to cover up, to begin with. (That doesn’t change the fact that wives were basically slaves, of course.)

    • Cassandra

      Excessive covering or excessive un-covering are flip sides of the same patriarchal shit sandwich. Men are not subjected to any of this, not one bit.

  • I can kind of relate to this because I’ve done experiments to test myself and see what I can do and if it suits me. Not dress, because I’m not physically or mentally coordinated enough to fall into the beauty/fashion trap, but at one point I did without a fridge for three months to see what it was like to not have refrigeration for food. It was interesting, I managed just fine with careful planning and simplicity, and now I know I have more choices. Cold showers also fall into that category, and I even ended up preferring to sleep on the floor once I tried that and got the hang of it.

    Experimenting outside the box gives us more freedom to choose.

    How many women feel trapped in that they “must” wear lipstick/heels or shave their legs because that’s all they know?

    • M. Zoidberg

      I lived without a washer and dryer for years. Stomped my clothes in a tub like hack winemaker. Very time consuming.

      • I just wash mine at the sink now. I hardly have any so there’s no point in trekking down to the laundry room. I don’t know how clean they are, but at least they’re rinsed periodically.

  • Janice Holiday

    “Feminism has a louder voice than ever because brave women get online,
    every day, and fight the Twitter trolls, and write articles, and
    explain, yet again”.

    Which version of feminism? Does she mean women who think house wifing in a turtleneck and serving her dick swinging husband is feminism (god liberal feminism has failed us) or women who think twerking on a pole is feminist or women who find neither (liberal feminism has failed us again)? Sometimes I can’t tell. I found this site in the last year or so and showed it to my sister. She agreed. I am a silent reader. Where are the loud radical feminists? I struggle to find ones. Some guy on the news just killed another woman and we still have girls saying “I’m not feminist because I love men (um okay then. Good luck, do they realize they sound like the angry empowered feminist housewives who left factory jobs from Feminist Mystique) “, “I’m feminist because I do splits in thongs for men”. I just can’t… I hope your reader base thrives and reaches more confused women.

    • OldPolarBear

      Many apologies if you already know about her, but I think you might enjoy the work of a woman whose name I do not know, only her blog appellation of House Mouse Queen. The blog does not appear to have had any new entries for a while, and feminist analysis is not the main purpose of it. but she also posts YouTube videos.

      Her channel was called Mancheeze, and you can still find some of them by searching that on the YouTube search bar. YouTube shut down that channel because of relentless attacks from MRAs. She now posts her videos on her channel called MenR The Problem. Someone helped her with archiving 130+ of her old Mancheeze videos.

      She brings the anger, and a fine, fierce anger it is, and her feminist analyses are superb. For some reason, I will forget to listen for a while, and then I go and she has put up some new ones and I end up bingeing on them. I just today found out about the new channel and spent part of the morning and early afternoon catching up. I highly recommend her.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Mancheeze was the one who started the counter petition in my defense after the sex trade lobby tried to have me fired/no platformed at rabble and I am forever grateful to her <3

  • How did the piece make it through Customs?

  • I liked this article. I think women should be free to choose modesty. I don’t believe we are any freer to choose modesty than veiled women are free to choose to unveil. I particularly like bare faces — that is, bare of makeup. I’ve spent time in cultures where women didn’t wear the “beauty suit” (what a good name for the disguise women put on daily). I found once I got used to seeing bare women’s faces, I found it hard to tolerate made-up faces. They’re fake. Most of all they hide character. Our natural faces reveal much about us, especially our humanity. Made-up faces present an image. I would like to see all women refuse to wear make-up for a year or so. I mean ALL women. I suspect it would lead to significant change in various ways I can’t imagine. I don’t wear makeup, and I know full well that I look a lot more attractive with makeup. But I would rather people respond to something more important about me than my looks.

    • Jani

      I’m in agreement with you on this one. I find some of the criticism to this has been a bit harsh. I don’t see what the issue is with choosing to dress in such a way that might be described as “modest”. Obviously it’s the word itself that has acquired certain connotations, but I just took it to mean choosing not to expose too much bare flesh and dressing physical (and emotional) comfort. I’m wearing a turtleneck and jeans today. Does that mean I have adopted “modest” dress? Or if the clothes are close-fitting does that mean I’m not dressed modestly? I think it’s all relative to some kind of standard, which is something we all need to question (and presumably many of us do). Just where do our ideas of dress come from? What is “modest” in one context would be considered “immodest” in another. We are undoubtedly influenced by our culture and our choices don’t exist in vacuum. Working it out for ourselves and making our own informed decisions on how to dress and how to present ourselves isn’t that straightforward.

      I’m actually exploring the various ideas around body image and cultural pressures on women to look a certain way, the cult of dieting and eating disorders, not to mention the other mental health issues like low self esteem and depression. It’s heartbreaking to recognise how normalised the toxicity of this culture has become. At the root of it is the constant stream of hypersexualised imagery, the photoshopping, the magazine covers with headlines and pull-quotes about “beach bodies” and dropping so many dress sizes, and on and on. I have spent my life trying to opt out of this shit because it’s garbage, but there’s no denying that this stuff is selling our entire culture ideas of normalcy. Even if we actively resist it, many people who we come into contact with every day might not even see it, let alone question it.

      I’m all in favour of resisting this crap in any way we can, in our own ways. So if it’s “modest” dress (whatever that means), or wearing no make up, or wearing outlandish confrontational makeup, or shaving your head, or having waist length grey hair, or fuschia pink hair, or whatever it is, just go ahead. A “fuck you” to the hypersexualised cloning of women’s bodies is a good thing however you do it.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Right. While I’m unlikely to go this full ‘modesty’ route, I have all but stopped wearing heels and tight, sexualized clothing (I say all but because I did wear heels on New Years this year, I’m afraid… I went somewhere fancy, which I normally don’t do, and wore a dress, which I also rarely do… I’m more of a black jeans and big black shirt kinda person these days). Being ‘real’ when we meet or date men (i.e. being steadfast in our opinions, tough, unafraid to scare them off with our angry, passion, or scary feminist ideas) is really important and a great way to weed out assholes and fragile men who can’t handle being challenged or dating an ‘unfeminine’ woman. Most men like to think they like ‘strong women’, but have no fucking clue what that is like in real life, and actually hate it or feel emasculated by it. Men who aren’t scared off by a woman who fights back and doesn’t back down and who call them on their shit are rare imo. They think it equates to being ‘mean’.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I agree with what you say here, will. I will also say that what I value about this piece is that I think it’s an interesting thing to think about and that I also value a diversity of perspectives, from women who are pushing back against sexualization and objectification. The points about social media and how women present themselves on social media are what I found most poignant. I really wish women would stop playing this game, where they manufacture this perfect life (and body — wherein they somehow weigh 110 lbs but also eat pasta and croissants all the time — like please) online that they don’t at all have. I think it hurts other women.

  • Meghan Murphy

    1) What is a Wahabbi?

    2) We’re not promoting anything. I’m not about to take up ‘modesty,’ but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the author brings up interesting ideas.

    It’s ok to consider ideas and our choices and think critically about those ideas. Believe it or not, I don’t agree with everything we publish here, unequivocally. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s not worth considering, discussing, or thinking about. Let’s try a little nuance here, eh?

    I find this modern trend of hyperbolic anger at ideas we don’t 100% agree with very frustrating. I personally find alternate viewpoints interesting to consider and discuss. It not only helps me sort out my own perspectives, opinions, and arguments, but I think it’s useful in terms of understanding where other people are coming from. If we aren’t going to consider the perspectives of women who live different lives than us, I think we’re going to be hard pressed to get anywhere with this whole ‘feminism’ thing.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Well, I’m not sure that’s what she’s suggesting… I think there is something to be said for forcing a man to get to know who you really are, minus the symbols of femininity/sex. I think this practice made sense for her, but not necessarily that she thinks all women should do it.

    I guess I see so many women selling a version of themselves they think men want, and like to challenge them to stop doing that, which is the main thing I got from this article/excerpt.

  • Wren

    I am also uncomfortable with the concept of modesty, and I definitely think it’s a sign of submission to patriarchy to cover your hair, but I’ve read the article with the idea that “experiment” was the operative term. I don’t think she still dresses this way, right? Sometimes we have to go to extremes to find our middle ground.

    I’ve gone through something slightly similar in the last five years. I used to wear cute dresses and skirts a lot (still like them in summer cause of ventilation) and I had a collection of maryjane shoes, tons of funky fun tights, jewerely, etc. All very cute and quirky stuff. Now most of it makes me nauseous. But now I’m much simpler: jeans or black pants, keds or boots, t-shirts and gym shorts. It’s way more utilitarian. Anyway, my best friend and her family seem perplexed by it, to the point that they even bought me a dress at Christmas and suggested that it was so “me” and have made other subtle and not so subtle comments about my lackluster attire. I find it amusing.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I look like a dirtbag six out of seven days a week (though I prefer to think of my look as ’15 year old lesbian’.

  • lk

    Will, you stole the words out of my mouth and described a lot about what I didnt like about this article.

    “In the context of this article “modesty” is a standard applied to women. Is there any indication of an issue with men’s hair and arms being visible in public? Is a man’s revelation of his salt-and-pepper temples “immodest”??”

    Yes, I am all for women and girls rejecting overtly sexualized clothes/shoes…especially when they are uncomfortable (spanx, super high heels) and make it difficult to do important walk. I would love for women to get to explore fashion in a way that is not about presenting us as things for men to look at/hit on etc… but that is also not about adhering to some sexist notion that female ankles or hair are whatever are just too damn sexy to ever be exposed.

    “But for the sake of discussion, we need to acknowledge that this writer is speaking from within the framework of an Abrahamic faith and therefore she must leave some harmful patriarchal dictates unquestioned – like what is meant by “modesty” and who must adhere to those arbitrary double-standards.”

    YES!!!, the idea of modesty is something that is only applied to women and in many parts of the world and in many religions women are punished (or really have no choice) but to dress modestly.

  • viciera

    “Now, social media has combined with the brand of pop feminism which teaches that looking hot and being liberated are the same thing, and self-objectification has become a way of life … But it’s a lie, and we all know it. ”

    This is so spot on, I’ve been trying to articulate this exact phenomenon and she just nailed it in a sentence. All magazines and articles that comment on how ‘slaying’ and hot a woman is in the same breath as her and everyone loving her are being ‘woke’, is all so toxically fake and messed up, and we all know it deep down but we’re suppose to just smile, cheer and celebrate this ‘queen’.
    Everyone knows we’re all just being plastic and competing to be the ‘wokest’ one on a topic we know is superficial, shallow, objectifying, self commodifying and self destructive, but why do they keep on doing it?

  • I confess that I hadn’t thought much about the word “modest”. It’s a nice word, though, in all its various meanings, all of which are related I think. Modest dress, modest behaviour, modest aspirations, modest hopes. Was the word appropriated by the religious right? I think down there in the U.S. it might have been. Idon’t know your nationality Will, but I wonder if the word has much more fanatically religious connotations in the U.S. than in Canada. i wonder if some responses to this article might have been different if she had just said she chose, for a period of time, to not strive at all to be sexy, and so covered her limbs, hair and didn’t wear makeup.

    And, yes, the author says she is a Christian pastor and stand-up comedian. That combination is a laugh in itself. I have major problems with christianity, but the women pastors and priests I’ve encountered have been … very different than the male ones. They seem to become priests to try to follow the wise and compassionate words of this fellow named Jesus, which is really imo rare among so-called Christians. So I have a certain amount of respect for women priests/pastors. Your mileage may vary 🙂

    • FierceMild

      “Modest dress” is a byword of contemporary far right religion. There are even specific (as in 3/4 length sleeves, neck two fingers breadth below hollow of throat) guidelines for FEMALE modest dress. Strangely, there are no such guidelines for men.

      • holy smokes, really?? Did you know that the Farsi word “hijab” also literally means “modesty” (and there are of course specific guidelines for modest dress — for women and men) Looks like the xian far right and fundamental islam have this in common.

      • Alienigena

        “Strangely, there are no such guidelines for men.”

        Yeah, strange that.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I don’t see any other comments from you, either in the deleted or the spam folder, so idk, but I will say that if you think there aren’t countless radical feminists who identify as Christian, many of whom you likely have read and/or respect, you need to get out more and have more conversations with women. I hate religion and Christianity, personally, but (ironically) I didn’t even know any Christians until I became involved with the radical feminist community. A lot of exited women (i.e. women who’ve escaped prostitution) are Christian, and they are my friends and sisters, despite the fact that I may not understand or relate to what they see as their spirituality and as a positive force in their lives.

    • Wren

      Thanks for saying this. I don’t consider myself Christian (I’m ethnically Jewish) but I worked in churches for many years and found a lot of my strength in liberation theology.

  • Melissaisasnob


  • Alienigena

    I generally agree that if something helps traumatised people survive and move on it has utility. But religious beliefs are not neutral beliefs and they really don’t have positive messaging for women. This from a person who was a religious seeker as a child. I have read the Christian bible cover to cover a few times, read Luther’s interpretations of biblical texts, attended bible studies and camps and been confirmed in the Lutheran church (while exposed to other Christian beliefs, including evangelical beliefs). I inflicted all this on myself. And I think it helped my survive my abusive, alcoholic father though I was never a true believer (in miracles or even the divinity of Christ). But I think even believers have to confront the misogyny of much of Christianity (e.g. Paul/Saul’s letters). I noticed it when I was 13 and read the Paul’s various epistles and the Song of Solomon (Old Testament). Apparently being an unblemished sacrificial animal (the Song of Solomon emphasizes the unblemished and passive nature of the female subject of adoration) was the goal of my evangelical friend in junior high because she suggested reading it as some kind of model of male-female relationships. And it was great to hear the pastor at my older cousin’s funeral (at a United Church of all places, a denomination most bland and non-committal) mention Revelations as something to take to heart. I wanted to shout “Are you kidding” as having read the book of Revelations it sounds to me like it was written by a madman.

    • FierceMild

      I completely agree with everything you wrote. Nevertheless, it is women (almost exclusively women) of faith who are behind the institutions helping women were I live. I don’t understand how they reconcile their faith with their work – personally, I think that’s impossible – I mean to point out that I will listen to and respect women who devote their lives to helping other women. I think their religions are major contributors to the problems these women try to solve, but they are acting to help. There are so few people who can and will devote themselves to helping; these women are believers but they don’t lack respect for those who do not believe.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I don’t think there is a ‘religious feminism’ either, but I don’t see anyone pushing that. (Not anyone who aligns themselves with radical feminist analysis, in any case…) There are, though, women who are religious and feminist…

  • Safa

    Yea, this creeped me out too. Suddenly, my continuing education training on Preventing Child Abuse – Maintaining Healthy Boundaries kicked in and I stopped reading. I did, however, manage to slog through and finish the essay. Ms. Shields is a published author so obviously her publishers thought she had something relevant to say or they would have rejected her book. So far, she has demonstrated that it is still possible for a woman to find “the man of her dreams” and get a teenage step-child to take care of while wearing non-revealing clothing. There are already thousands of books and websites on the subjects of man-finding and step-parenting. Women need guidance and role models that demonstrate how to live their lives without always resorting to the tried and true paradigm of wife and mother.

    I know I am guilty of critiquing Ms. Sheilds’ personal choices, but through writing and publishing what can be considered a self-help book, she has opened up her life to public scrutiny. It is natural that readers would want to know how Ms. Sheilds has lived her life as a fellow female in patriarchal culture. Being a non-fiction author, Ms. Sheilds is in a fiduciary position to the general public. In non-fiction, an author puts forward that she knows something about a subject that would help people understand the world better. I would not trust an author who wrote a book about staying out of debt and then subsequently declared bankruptcy.

    Hopefully, her editors curtailed her personal ruminations and had the writing focus on helping women to stop objectifying themselves and that it is OK for women to wear less restrictive and comfortable clothing if they choose.

  • Wren

    I’m in complete agreement with all that you’ve said.

  • Alienigena

    I agree about churches being good spaces for community groups to organize. They are inspiring and contemplative spaces, assuming you were not abused by someone in authority in the church hierarchy. I recently heard a choral music performance in a church (with beautiful stain glass windows, woodwork, etc.) and it really was great, acoustic-wise. I am an atheist who loves traditional sacred music and spirituals. So, a bit of a hypocrite.

  • radwonka

    How is modesty in a society that sexualises women a performance? To me it looks more like women setting boundaries and trying to be free from the male gaze