Private Body, Public Object


I’ve been thinking about bodies.

My body.

Other women’s bodies.

And when they are and are not our own.

Every day, it seems like women are faced with a reminder that, according to several sources – teenage athletes, the law, that random guy on the street – our bodies don’t belong to us. Not entirely. Not really. Not for spans of time exceeding an hour or a day.

This is hardly a new concept in feminism. The battlefield for women’s rights is littered with the bodies of women that have been objectified, co-opted, abused, imprisoned or slain along the way; millions of faceless causalities of war. That shoulder over there was not-so-surreptitiously brushed against by a stranger on the bus; that breast over there was posted to a ‘revenge porn’ website by a former lover; that uterus over there carried to term a child doomed to perish outside the womb; that thigh over there was groped by a boy who was raised to believe that no means yes; that heart over there was married off to her uncle when she was just 13 years old, fulfilling a promise made when she had yet to learn to crawl.

This is hardly a new concept, least of all to the women who live the theorem out in practice every day.

Yet, when faced with events that underscore and highlight this reality, we seem incapable of connecting the dots and understanding how small behaviors lead to the larger horrors. We fail to link those little annoyances we put up with every day to the stories that leave us shell-shocked and wondering how something like that could possibly come to pass.

Consider President Obama’s recent verbal faux pas, in which he noted that California Attorney General Kamala Harris “happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.” The comment, made at a Democratic National Convention benefit, sparked well-deserved outrage by many groups for reducing an incredibly accomplished woman to her appearance. In the most professional of settings, he associated her other job-related attributes – that she is “brilliant,” “dedicated” and “tough” – with one that should have no bearing on a president’s assessment of an attorney general’s capabilities.

The president’s apology in the aftermath, noting that “he fully recognizes the challenge women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance,” was dutiful and appropriate. But the fact that the POTUS wouldn’t hesitate to comment on the physical appearance of a woman who is the chief law enforcer of California speaks volumes to the standards by which women are judged and the extent to which our bodies are always available for scrutiny, judgement, comment and consumption.

A woman can reach the highest of authoritative positions, and yet be constantly reminded that, to the men around her, she is still being evaluated by her perceived beauty, or lack thereof. Her value is assessed, at least in part if not in entirety, by how attractive men find her.

On one hand, it’s a flippant comment made by a well-intentioned male colleague who should have know better. Harris accepted the apology, and both parties moved on to bigger issues.

But on the other hand, it’s yet another in a slew of constant reminders that no matter how capable or qualified we are, our bodies are constantly on display, under evaluation, available for public consumption, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Comments like Obama’s reinforce this fact not only to women, but also to men – and to boys.

They might be seemingly innocuous comments, but words matter. The language we use establishes power dynamics, changes views and impacts access to power and leadership. When a female political candidate’s appearance is mentioned in coverage of her candidacy, she pays negative price in the polls. That correspondence stays true whether the comments were praising or criticizing her appearance. When we focus on a woman’s outward appearance, it diminishes the other qualities or characteristics that make up the totality of her humanity, reducing her to an outer shell. Our vocabulary helps shape our perceptions.

When news broke about the sickening case in Steubenville, Ohio – in which two teenage boys dragged an unconscious girl from party to party, sexually assaulting her, violating her body and filming it all to post on social media – the public was justifiably horrified. The details not only of the assault itself, but of the willingness of witnesses to watch, partake and publicize the attack seemed to defy belief. How could two boys, both seemingly promising young men, be driven to such depravity? Where are these boys’ parents?  How could so many of the girl’s peers stand by and not only remain silent, but cheer on the attackers?

While the boys are most certainly responsible for their own actions and deserving of the eventual guilty verdict, to focus solely on ‘where were the parents’ is far too reductive. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a society to convince a boy that a girl’s body is of so little value that he can just reach out and take it, literally. If those boys truly did not believe their actions amounted to rape – as at least one argued in court – then there has been a massive failure to imbue basic concepts of consent, bodily autonomy and respect for women. We have failed to communicate that a girl’s body, no matter how passive, is not yours for the taking.

There are, of course, innumerable levels of infractions between an awkward attempt at a compliment, and a gang rape of an unconscious teenage girl. But the two occurances are linked by the basic concept that women’s bodies are there to be enjoyed by others, no matter the setting or situation; whether it’s between colleagues at a political fundraiser, or drunken high schoolers in the backseat of their parents’ car. If we want to prevent future Steubenville’s from occurring (and rest assured, they are occurring with alarming regularity, whether CNN tells us about it not) then we need to have a massive shift in our basic understanding of the way we value, talk about, and talk to women. We need to value women for their humanity, rather than their physical attributes. We need to stop treating women’s bodies as if they are public property to be assessed like a diamond ring at a pawn shop or a horse up for auction. Far beyond talking the talk, we need to walk the walk, so young people see and learn how to value women for their minds, not their bodies. And we need to be unafraid of honest conversations about consent, rape and sex early on, before children will ever be faced with those decisions. Because by the time they’re making that decision, it’s too late.

Sure, President Obama’s comment to AG Harris – and the millions of similar comments made every day – could be laughed off as foot-in-mouth-disease, a minor slip of the tongue on which we needn’t dwell. But with our most visible leaders faux pas-ing all over the place, how can we expect our children to develop a respect for women that values them on their status as a human being, rather than their status as a piece of ass?


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."