The internet, self-objectification, and untimely beginnings

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

Kim Kardashian (Image: Instagram)

www.okcupid.com

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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