The sexual objectification of women is so widespread in our culture that it is almost unremarkable. Women's objectified bodies serve as the backdrop to our everyday lives. They are used to advertise everything from beer to burgers to organ donation.
Despite the well-documented harms of objectifying and dehumanising representations of women, such imagery has come to be regarded as 'normal'.
Sexual objectification occurs when a woman is treated as a body, or a series of body parts, for other's (men's) use and consumption, or when her physical attributes and sexual capabilities are regarded as representative of her whole self or seen as determining her worth.
What does sexual objectification look like? It can be a depiction of women as ready and available for sex, as a single body part or a collection of hypersexualised body parts, as interchangeable, or in place of a literal object. (Check out Dr Caroline Heldman's CHIPS test to identify sexual objectification here.)
Headless women: stripped of personhood
One of the most common forms of objectification is the portrayal of a woman without a head or face, which serves to strip her of her humanity and reduces her to nothing more than a sexualised body.
The Headless Women in Hollywood Project documents examples of sexualised, headless women in mainstream media and explains how this sexist and objectifying treatment of women is harmful:
By decapitating the woman, or fragmenting her body into decontextualised sexual parts, she becomes an unquestionably passive object to the male gaze. The question of her consent is removed completely alongside her head, and her purpose becomes solely that of being looked at by men obediently. Her value is that only of her sexual appeal to men, and not of her personhood.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many corporates are attempting to paint themselves as promoting female empowerment – some even while profiting from the harmful objectification of women, like Playboy-owned sex shop Honey Birdette.
But corporates who promote the objectification and dehumanisation of women for profit are not on the side of ‘female empowerment’. Sexual objectification is linked with men’s violence against women, and decades of research indicates that exposure to sexualising and objectifying representations of women “leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women's competence, morality, and humanity.” Essentially, sexually objectifying women is incompatible with female empowerment.
As researcher Dr Meagan Tyler explains:
There is nothing empowering about sexual objectification. Sexual objectification is literally about reducing women's power. These representations of women, that reduce us to consumable body parts, reduce our recognition of women's full humanity and make it more difficult for women to participate in public life.
Unfortunately for women, Ad Standards appears unable to grasp the concept of sexual objectification and its corresponding harms to women and children, which is demonstrated in its failure to uphold complaints against sexist and objectifying representations of women in advertising. So we are calling on you to contact your candidate in the lead up to the federal election and ask them to take action to stop sexist, objectifying and porn-themed representations of women in advertising.