Just because the David Beckham underwear billboards and hottest goalkeeper countdowns aren’t as pervasive as the sexed up portrayals of women, doesn’t mean the content isn’t damaging.
Four years ago, the last time World Cup fever made the rounds, I used as my desktop background a picture of Carlos Bocanegra, the former captain of the U.S. men’s soccer team. He was lifting his shirt to wipe the mud from his extremely square jaw, exposing a torso that could have been carved from marble, if marble were dripping beautiful beads of sweat and covered with exactly as much chest hair as I find extremely attractive.
One morning, my roommate caught a glimpse of Bocanegra’s pectorals. He was appalled, “Seriously?” He said, “Isn’t that exactly the objectification you’re always railing against? If I had a swimsuit model as my background, wouldn’t you tell me I was being super shallow and sexist?”
“But it’s not the same,” I wailed, trying for a brief, delusional moment to maintain the moral high ground. “There’s a difference between the individual appreciation of the male form and a culture of oppressive objectification, blah blah bah! The hypersexualization of women replaces all of their accomplishments with beauty standards, while the sexualization of men only enhances their power, blah blah blah! And I only do it every four years, blah blah blah!”
Blah blah blah, indeed. It’s World Cup season again and the Internet is plastered with the “best” thighs, chests, abs, and butts of the world’s soccer players. And yet again, I find myself torn between addressing the contextual differences around the objectification of male and female bodies—to make myself feel better about ogling? Maybe—and wanting to rid the world of the kinds of lists that reduce humans to specifically shaped muscle groups while making everyone who doesn’t have them feel shitty about themselves.
As it often is with these things, both are true: The objectifications of men and women are meaningfully different and the temporary “pass” we give ourselves to leer at midfielders every four years is a crock of self-indulgent crap.
Men do not live in a world that constantly tells them, through every vehicle and platform imaginable, that their worth as humans is directly tied to how sexually desirable they are. Their usefulness is not conflated with their lust-worthiness. They are not stuck between the ugly rock of “don’t be a prude” and the equally ugly hard place of “don’t be a slut.” The length of their skirts is never cited as a reason that they deserve harassment. They are not digitally covered up by yearbook editors, or told that their bodies, just by being bodies, are distracting to the students who matter more. They are not blamed for their own assaults because they were drinking or flirting.
Most of the media we consume is made for men, by men, about men. In family films, for example, men appear on film three times as frequently as women, but women are four times as likely to be shown in a provocative outfit. What messages do boys and girls absorb from that kind of imbalance? Men get visions of themselves as hunky firefighters, yes, but also brainy scientists, wise old kings, political masterminds, and cunning detectives. There is no singular model of “Successful Man,” that all boys must try to emulate.
So when I see yet another politician being graded on her hairstyle, or yet another Oscar-winning actress reduced to her cleavage, I can’t write it off as a drop in the bucket of lady portrayals. This is the whole goddamn bucket and it is full to the brim with bullshit.
So, no, I will not just laugh it off, look the other way, let it go, take a joke, or loosen up already.
But what about the men? If the lady portrayal bucket is spilling over with this garbage, and the dude portrayal bucket has a wider variety of non-garbage padding the bottom of the pail, it doesn’t mean that this little piece of objectification isn’t still a layer of shit. Is it quantitatively as much shit? No, but it stinks all the same. Just because the David Beckham underwear billboards and hottest goalkeeper countdowns aren’t as pervasive as the sexed up portrayals of women, doesn’t mean the content isn’t damaging.
What do I say to the scrawny teenage boy who is perhaps dismayed by the lusting of his female classmates after the well-developed chests of the 17 Hottest Soccer Players with Freckles? What do I say to the man who is made to feel inadequate about his own body because his thighs don’t ripple like that, and that’s apparently what the “best” thighs are supposed to do? What do I say to a fat kid who worries he will never be worthy of love because the message he gets is Channing Tatum or bust?
Part of me wants to say, welcome to our world, bro, this is every damn day in Ladyville. Sucks, doesn’t it?
But equal objectification of the sexes isn’t an endgame worth fighting for. Just like I want a world where my future daughter doesn’t feel her value is determined by how closely she meets someone else’s standard of beauty, I don’t want my future son wondering if his abs are more important than his actions.
Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.