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Fashionably Informed: Objectification in Fashion

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In our Fashionably Informed column, we’ve talked before about some of the issues women face in the fashion industry, such as the gender wage gap and unrealistic beauty standards. Today, we’re taking on the problem of objectification by examining what it is, how it functions in fashion, and why it matters.

Objectification: What is it?

objectification beer ad
Photo: Jonathan Mcintosh

The basic definition of objectification is the process whereby people are viewed and treated as objects. But since this can be a difficult concept to understand, the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, NOMAS, has a slightly more in-depth explanation:

Objectification [is] portrayals of women in ways and contexts which suggest that women are objects to be looked at, ogled, touched, or used; anonymous things or commodities to be purchased, perhaps taken; and once tired of, discarded, often to be replaced by a newer, younger edition; certainly not treated as full human beings with equal rights and needs.

In Western society, women are most often the targets of objectification. This is because women, much more so than men, tend to be valued for their appearance and their appearance alone. While a young boy, for example, might be told he is “smart,” “strong,” or “brave,” we oftentimes laud young girls for looking pretty or dressing nicely.

As women grow up, they are bombarded with messages from the media and their peers that they are only as valuable as their appearance or their sexual appeal as decided by the heterosexual male gaze.

The problems with objectification are obvious. It results in the mistreatment of women when they are used as means to an end (often for sexual gratification) rather than respected and treated with dignity as whole, well-rounded human beings.

But there are also deeper concerns. When women are objectified, they are necessarily dehumanized.Though not directly the cause of it, objectification enables an environment where violence against women is okay and permissible. Objects, after all, do not have feelings or deserve fair treatment and respect.

Examples of Objectification in Fashion

robin thicke objectification
Photo: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke

So, what does objectification look like in practice? One of the most notorious cases recently was the music video for Robin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines.” Beyond the predatory and downright disturbing lyrics, Thicke received a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women.

In the video, nude female models dance and walk around the set while fully-dressed Thicke and Pharrell perform. In one scene, a woman is literally used as a table top when she kneels on all fours. Here, women are sexualized and used as objects for aesthetic purposes. Though there has been a lot of debate about the agency of the models choosing to participate, ultimately it is a strong example of objectification in the media.

But this problem is not limited to pop music videos. In fact, the issue runs rampant in fashion advertising, too. Often just parts of female bodies (often highly sexualized parts like the butt and breasts) are used to sell unrelated goods. Using female bodies, or more accurately, just parts of female bodies to sell items commodifies women by literally failing to represent them as full and complete human beings.

American apparel copy
Photo: American Apparel

Compare, for example, the American Apparel shirt ads for men versus women shown above. It’s the same shirt, but while the male ad showcases the product being sold – the shirt – the female ad is highly sexualized. In some of American Apparel’s female sock ads, the product is barely even visible, leading consumers worldwide to speak out against the brand’s advertising practices. It certainly raises the question; what’s being sold, the product or the female body?

It’s not that the female body or female sexuality is bad. In fact, women should be free to express their sexuality however they see fit without fear of being shamed for it. The difference is agency, or the role women play in making those choices. They should be able to do it on their terms and, unfortunately, what we often see in fashion advertising is the opposite – women being unwillingly objectified to sell a product with little choice in how or why their sexuality is expressed.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think about objectification in fashion advertising? Is it a problem? Are there any examples of objectification that come to mind? Let us know in the comments below!

Posted on on May 24, 2014 / Filed Under: Fashion News / Tags: , , , , ,

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9 Responses to “Fashionably Informed: Objectification in Fashion”

  1. 1
    May 24th, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    If you understand Spanish (or even if you don’t you can look up the lyrics translation) there’s a great song by a Colombian band named Ateciopeleados called El Estuche that talks about this. I’d also like to point out that the music videos of artists like Enrique Bunbury from Spain and Camila Moreno from Chile are visually engaging and do not present women in this light. I know Kate asked about fashion advertising but it’s really prevalant in the music videos industry as well.

  2. 2
    May 24th, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Something we need to consider is the fact that people are buying these products, obviously at higher rates if ad companies continue to use this technique.

  3. 3
    May 24th, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    I totally agree with your article. I really hate when anybody uses women’s body to sell a product. I am Latin American, and here, most “car wash ads” portray almost naked women. Many people say that it is because here sexism is too strong, and that this doesn’t happen in the world. However, it does happen. The music industry exploits women’s body in such an unsensitive way. Blurred Lines is the epitome of this.

  4. 4
    May 25th, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Of course it is a problem, and it is the most underrated problem in the history of the universe. The sexism and objectification leads to depression, mental health disorders, suicides, violence, and it is the most unjust way to live.

  5. 5
    May 25th, 2014 at 10:47 am

    Great article. I think the comparison of the American Apparel flannel shirts is the best example. It’s so ridiculous how over sexualized the female version is.

  6. 6
    May 25th, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    I think pat of the problem is that we as women in ways do it to ourselves. We let the media do it to us! Theres not enough women who object to the objectification of women, also nobody is forcing these women to do this. they are doing it themselves, if they would refuse to objectify there bodies in these types of ways then maybe the objectification of women will decrease. also we leave in more of a “male driven” society, most men don’t want to see a naked man, but a naked woman. so this is what goes.

  7. 7
    May 26th, 2014 at 10:33 am

    In regards to the AA image I find it amusing that they use a sexual image of a female to advertise clothing meant for females. It’s almost as if both images are aimed at men…

  8. 8
    May 27th, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    I love that song, and I found the video funny.

  9. 9
    May 27th, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Thank you.

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