The Itemised Woman
There’s an annual Secret ritual that is, at the very least, anthropologically bizarre. It involves the people of the village Victoria gathering together a gruesome collection of human parts from disparate sources – legs, lips, scalps, eyes, breasts – and assembling them into a “best of” list.
In a presentation that straddles the ordinarily expansive divide between robotic and desperate, the body bits are awarded the “sexiest” by women who are themselves directed to emphasise the sexiness of their own parts in contrast.
The ritual is known as the “What Is Sexy List”, and I assure you I’m twice as sick of typing ‘sexy’ as you are of reading it. While it’s particularly galling for a group of people whose peaks of arousal include 19 year olds in nappies, high socks and wings, to be telling the world “what is sexy”, that isn't the primary problem with this piece of theatre.
What is really sick about it is the reduction of women into isolated elements. I can only imagine how mortified serious dramatist Jessica Chastain is at being boiled down to the “sexiest smile” or how breakout star Jennifer Lawrence feels about having her eyes plucked out, Hunger Games style, for their beauty. While Emma Stone’s sense of humor is no doubt impeccable, I question whether it is ebullient enough to support its “sexiest” tag. What does “sexiest sense of humour” even mean? And why does it nestle next to “curves” in a list of outstanding qualities?
On the surface, it seems easy to dismiss such a list as ridiculous nonsense. It certainly presents itself that way. But a mere month after its publication, a study came out revealing that it is not just Victoria’s Secret that looks at women more as collected lumps and orifices of varying appeal than as whole and sentient creatures: it’s everyone.
A study conducted at the University of Nebraska found that people were more likely to look at and recall particular parts of a woman’s body, rather than a woman as a whole, while men were more likely to be looked at and recalled as whole beings. This tendency was found in men and women. The difference is a matter of local or global processing, and the researchers found that the inclination to look at women locally rather than globally could be quickly wiped by getting trial subjects to consider other things (like a letter H made out of teeny tiny letter T’s) from a global perspective first.
This finding, and its easy reversal, does not suggest a chicken and egg situation where we objectify women more because that’s just how our brains do. It’s more a matter of cart and horse, and unfortunately in this metaphor, our thinking patterns are very much being carted around by the way we’re socialised to perceive women.
The woman-as-parts and man-as-sum-of-them split can be seen even in our modes of dress. After all, what is a suit if not a unified, coherent whole with cufflinks and ties as supportive trimming, while women are told they should clothe themselves to emphasise their better assets, while concealing points of discontent.
On a macro-level, this type of thinking also explains some of the battles that currently wage about women’s ownership of their own bodies. If you have thoroughly convinced yourself that a woman is like a jigsaw puzzle, then extracting one part (say, the uterus), and informing her that it’s not hers to govern is not such an injury. It’s no different from twisting the bonnet ornament off your Rolls Royce when you park it in a bad part of town. Removing a part that is precious and vulnerable for safe-keeping makes a sort of sense. If however, you conceive of a woman less as puzzle and more as a wooden horsey – a whole, completed thing – then controlling a part of her becomes a ruining, splintering activity. The sort of surgery that has to be done with a chainsaw.
When you see someone in parts, depriving them of autonomy over one little bit is not such a loss. But when you think of women as totalities not components (when you think of women the way you think of men) then it is understood that to remove choice over one part is to remove freedom overall.
Turning women into a list of lips, eyes, breasts, thighs, sphincters and wombs is certainly silly, but it can also be deadly.