To Him I Was An Object: Sexual Assault and Body Image
“To him I was an object.”
That’s how Elizabeth Smart — who was kidnapped at age 14 and raped daily for 9 months — describes her kidnapper’s perception of her. To view or treat someone as an object, or a compilation of parts to be judged and consumed, is to dehumanize that person. Objectification is dehumanization. The presence of female objectification in media and public settings is inescapable. Nearly nude, thin-yet-curvaceous, Photoshopped body ideals are used to sell absolutely everything — including the promise of happiness, health, and desirability — to girls and women who will spend their lives (and their money) trying to attain such ideals.
In a culture that is so comfortable viewing women’s bodies as objects available for our own mental consumption, it should be no surprise that many women’s bodies are violently used as objects for physical consumption without their consent. In the U.S., it is estimated that almost 20 percent* of women have been sexually assaulted, most of which involved completed rape. This is one of the most objectifying and dehumanizing acts a person can experience. As a result of this trauma, most survivors of sexual assault experience body image disturbance in some form, from preoccupation with appearance to severe eating disorders. Reports show 30-60% of patients in treatment for eating disorders have been sexually assaulted.**
Survivors of sexual assault report feelings and behaviors that are entirely consistent with effects of objectification, almost all of which are associated with body shame, or feelings of disgust for one’s own body. Girls and women starve, binge, purge, compulsively overeat, avoid exercise, exercise obsessively, isolate themselves, and elect to life-threatening cosmetic surgery in an attempt to or control their bodies — either by forcing them to fit cultural beauty ideals (which are upheld as the product of superior willpower and self-discipline) or to avoid conforming to beauty ideals and thus avoid sexual attention. Girls and women who have been used and abused as objects are likely to treat their own bodies as objects.
Almost 3/4 of the women in both of our doctoral studies (Kite, 2013 & Kite, 2013) described themselves in self-objectifying terms, meaning they viewed themselves from an outsider’s perspective. This is really bad, and here’s why: Living a life for others’ viewing pleasure is not fully living. When girls and women live their lives in this perpetual state of body-monitoring, they are forfeiting some of their own humanity. They are living as passive objects whose primary purpose is to be judged and consumed by others, and not as humans actively making choices and experiencing life for themselves. This constant preoccupation with appearance comes at the expense of every other mental and physical capacity you can think of.
The effects of body shame, whether prompted by sexual assault or a lifetime of objectification, are tremendously painful. But we’re not writing this just to shed light on the pain. We’re writing this to help people — maybe even you — use that pain for good, for progress, for power. Our research centers on the goal of body image resilience, which is the ability to harness and call upon innate and learned resilient traits to overcome the negative consequences of objectification brought on by life disruptions. Those disruptions can range from sexual assault to stress over wearing a swimsuit at the pool. When not handled effectively, disruptions can drag people deeper into body shame and poor health choices or can be absorbed into a normalized “comfort zone” of body shame and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Disruptions can be daily or one-time events, but they always provide opportunities for growth that are not possible without pain.
We want you to reflect on a disruption you’ve experienced relating to your perception of your body. This could be anything: a comment someone made about you, giving birth, getting married, being assaulted, a breakup, an injury, etc. Carefully consider the ways it affected your life, including the ways you thought about or treated your body after the disruption.
- How did you work through that time?
- What skills or resources — internally and externally — did you use to cope?
- Consider how the disruption changed you, for better or for worse. What would be different about you if you hadn’t experienced this disruption?
That brings us back to Elizabeth Smart. After 9 months in captivity and suffering the vilest of abuses every single day, she went on to truly thrive. It has been almost 12 years since she was found, and since then she has graduated from college, served an 18-month mission for her church, got married, testified against her captors, supported sexual predator legislation in Congress, and spoke out about her experiences all over the place, including her fantastic memoir, “My Story” (2013). Considering all she suffered during her abduction, no one would be surprised if Elizabeth isolated herself from the world and abused every harmful coping mechanism she could find. It happens all the time. But she didn’t. Why?
“We are the ones who decide how we are going to react to life. I realized I only had one life and I didn’t want to waste it,” she states in her memoir. “Like everyone else, I have my challenges, but I have learned from them and they have helped to make me better.”
This is literally the definition of resilience. Elizabeth recognized that she could use her major life disruption as a way to be better than she ever could have been without it — more grateful for what she has, more experienced, and a more powerful force for good. “I have also learned that my challenges can help me reach out to others with more empathy and understanding than I could ever have had before,” she said. “When we face challenges, it’s very easy to be mad or upset. But when we have passed our great test, we are given opportunities to reach out to other people. We are able to affect change in a way that otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to.”
- How could your disruption help you to be better than you would be without having that experience?
- How have you been able to (or might you be able to) affect change in a way you wouldn’t have been able to if you hadn’t experienced your disruption?
Lexie and I know that if we hadn’t experienced the pain of intense body shame growing up, we would never have pursued the course we have academically or professionally by starting Beauty Redefined. There is no way we would care to help anyone else recognize and resist harmful messages about bodies if we didn’t intimately understand the toll it takes on people’s lives. We believe all painful disruptions — even sexual assault — can become enabling disruptions that help us grow stronger, and maybe even allow us to help others grow stronger.
When asked how she survived, Elizabeth credited God, her family, and her community, and also said this: “Every survivor must make their own pathway to recovery. I found the path that worked for me.” We agree. Our research has pointed us toward steps and skills that can predict success for women struggling with body image issues. However, not everyone’s struggle is the same. For many people, cultivating skills for resilience can be a powerful tool to use dark, painful experiences as a springboard toward healthy choices, happiness, and empowerment. We have divided those skills into four categories that are crucial for developing body image resilience below. If you need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before, we can help. Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.
- Increasing our media literacy (understanding how and why media is engineered the way it is — see our entire “recognize” category of blog posts)
- Critical thinking about beauty and health ideals (skin color, body size, age, BMI, fitspiration)
- Critical self-reflection about our own beliefs and choices
- Making conscious decisions about the media we consume and cutting out what is harmful (start with a media fast)
- Using our bodies as instruments rather than objects (setting and achieving fitness goals)
- Redefining health for ourselves according to internal indicators and how we feel — not how we look
- Understanding that you are more than just a body and tapping into that higher-level thinking in whatever way suits you
- “There exists a positive relationship between spirituality, mental and physical health, life satisfaction, and wellness. It follows that if a woman draws her sense of meaning from a spiritual force that goes beyond herself and that provides coherence and purpose to the universe, she will find less need to focus on her weight, shape, and appearance in an attempt to find happiness or life satisfaction” (Choate, 2007, p. 323).
- Considering your influence in the ways you speak about your body and others’
- Understanding the social implications of how you treat your body (physically Photoshopping)
- Using your influence to support others in this struggle and promote positive body image in conversation, social media, etc.
Please follow the links above for more information, and see this list of strategies for practical ways to redefine beauty and health in your own life. If you have been sexually assaulted or know someone who has, we encourage you to report it, tell someone you trust, and seek assistance through the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), which can connect you with resources and guidance.*About 3% of men have been sexually assaulted. These statistics don’t take into account victims 12 or younger. http://www.sarsonline.org/resources-stats/reports-laws-statics, http://www.rainn.org/statistics **http://aftersilence.org/, http://health.columbia.edu/topics/eating-disorders/sexual-assault, O’Neil, 1997.