An underlying attitude is at the root of it.
Understandably, then, we make sure to teach our children to understand their own worth. “Don’t objectify yourself,” we teach our teenagers (especially the girls). “You’re more than a piece of meat!” Nobody exists just to fuel the sexual fantasies of another, and no matter how flattering the attention might be, it’s never okay to treat yourself as though your value depends on another’s reaction to you. Objectifying yourself will always chip away at your sense of authentic self-worth.
Because our sexuality is such an important part of who we are, and because it’s so damaging to be seen — or to see ourselves — as mere sexual objects, the conversation around self-objectification tends to be about fashion choices and modesty. Which is fair. How we dress is certainly one way that, intentionally or not, we treat ourselves as objects to be used.
But let’s not allow the conversation around objectification stay limited to the sphere of sexuality. After all, objectifying yourself isn’t so much about the specific clothes you’re wearing as much as the attitude which says, “I’m nothing more than a means to an end.” There are actually a lot of ways to treat yourself as a means to an end, and they’re all equally damaging, since they all do the same thing — set a person’s worth to be dependent on something outside of what a human person is.
What are some other ways to objectify yourself? How about …
- Being a workaholic: If you act as though your value is dependent on the paycheck you bring in, or the hours you pour into your job, you’re treating yourself like a machine, one that has to produce, produce, produce, in order to stay valuable.
- Being codependent: Saying to your significant other, “I’m nothing without you” might feel like true love, but you’re actually identifying yourself as a support mechanism and self-esteem prop for your partner, not a whole person. Your worth has nothing to do with your relationships.
- Basing your identity on your area of expertise: Do you define yourself by what you’re good at? You can be the best quarterback, chef, doctor, or scholar that world has ever known, but that’s not what makes you important. You’re more than just what you can do.
- Staking your value on your physical or mental prowess. Fitness is wonderful, but you’re not worth more for being strong and healthy, than if you’re sick and weak. Education is wonderful too, but you’re not worth more for being brilliant and articulate than if you are illiterate and illogical. Heck, you’re not even worth more when you’re in your prime than you are if you were in a coma.
The common denominator among these attitudes, and more, is that we take something that’s legitimately good and important — our sexuality, our skill, our intelligence, etc. — and make the mistake of assuming that we’re valuable because of that dimension of ourselves.
People who understand their value to be dependent on their sexual attractiveness are understandably terrified of aging. I’d feel like that too, if I thought that with every new wrinkle, I mattered less. But I’d feel the same fear if I’d staked my self-worth on anything at all that could be lost. My physical strength, my health, my mind, my relationships — I’ve seen enough of life to know that these are transient, too. That’s why it’s so crucial to approach life without accidentally falling into self-objectification. If you thought you were only valuable because of what you could offer, and suddenly that’s gone, then what sense of self are you left with?
The bottom line is this. You are still you, still immeasurably, incalculably valuable, even in a coma, even paralyzed, even when old age has stolen your former sense of self. You have been this person since before you were born. So if you’ve based your identity on anything you didn’t have as an embryo, or won’t take to the grave, that’s when you may be objectifying yourself.
Things have value based on how well they work. A person’s value is grounded in who he is. Don’t sell yourself short.