Another profound effect of the social construction of sexuality and beauty is a fragmented sense of identity for both girls and women. Fragmentation occurs in part because society encourages women to be desirable according to certain beauty ideals while simultaneously encouraging them to deny their sexuality. Women are expected to be sexually attractive while at the same time being punished for being promiscuous and denied adequate access to contraception and reproductive care. In effect, women are left trying to incorporate their real experiences into a framework of fantasy. The missing images of women’s realities makes women’s experiences seem less valid and only vaguely visible.
An insidious effect of beauty ideals and their relation to sexuality is the transformation of women’s (and men’s) sexuality away from variable, emergent, and personal experiences to a sexuality that is external, impersonal, and rigidly fixed. Women learn that their sexuality is for others and that being sexual means being an object rather than an agent. Morgan
(1994) has formulated this idea in a strong statement that “women’s eroticism is defined as either nonexistent, pathological, or peripheral when it is not directed to phallic goals” (p. 243). In a sense, the women themselves become invisible while the interests and desires of men become figural. To the extent that women internalize the idea that their sexuality, physical appearance, and identity are united, their sense of worth and well-being will depend in large part on their ability to meet whatever impossible standards are popular at the time.
In these circumstances of objectification, personal identity and selfworth are translated into sex appeal that is defined by and for others. Why, one may ask, do women put up with it? The paradox of why women participate in this system is answered by the omnipresent, internalized nature of the system. It is in part the attraction of power and control implicitly promised to women who meet the ideals. It is the magical power of the seductress that offers validation of the self, however temporary and fleeting.
Nevertheless, the implicit promise of affirmation and happiness is more illusory than real. The more likely consequences of buying into this system are feelings of inadequacy and failure. In fact, it is quite normative for girls and women to say they hate their bodies. Women and teen girls actually report peer pressure to express dissatisfaction and disgust for their bodies. In the process of an impossible pursuit, women are demeaned and diminished. When sexuality is objectified, a woman “is treated as if she lacked one or more of the distinctive human capacities upon which her rights to a certain level of well-being and freedom are based. . . she is treated in the very way she would commonly be treated if she were an animal, body, or object” (Lemoncheck, 1994, p. 205).
We propose, along with other authors in this volume, that problems with body image, sexual dysfunction, and other psychological disorders are not the result simply of a failure to achieve the right look but are the product of striving for an impossible fantasy. Rather than feeling satisfied, affirmed, and included, women are more likely to feel vaguely anxious, inadequate, vulnerable, and needy. Rather than feeling empowered or enjoying an expanded social life, women are likely to feel insecure and defeated. Ultimately, as long as women continue to have a vested interest in their appearance for lack of another choice, they will continue to be controlled through objectification.
We should never lose sight of the fact that sexual objectification ultimately results in the dehumanization of women. For example, in a recent survey, 50% of 1,000 men said that they would not report their best friend for raping a woman they did not know (“I can’t believe,” 1995). Curiously enough, 71% of these same men said that women today see themselves too much as victims. These responses reveal a dangerous and dark side to objectification, issues that we will explore more fully in the final section of this volume.