Where is the line between healthy attraction and objectification? Know the warning signs now!
A new study shows that objectification can be linked to sexual coercion in romantic relationships. This is not surprising, for several reasons. More alarmingly, objectification is also statistically linked to sexual violence. This is also not surprising. So how do you tell the difference between objectification and healthy attraction? What are the warning signs that you would want to watch out for in a relationship or when getting to know someone? Obviously we would all like to enjoy healthy attraction and be able to separate it from unhealthy objectification with many risk factors.
Let's think about the mindset that someone is in when they tend to objectify another person physically. Someone who does this is by definition in an immature state of mind. When we are very young, we see the world as made of up many small parts. It takes a great deal of maturity to see how these parts fit together, and to consequently view people as "whole objects," or whole people. When we are less mature, we view people more as "objects" that serve a specific need or role in a particular moment.
This is a natural part of development when we are immature and incapable of meeting all of our own needs on our own. However, healthy development includes respecting others as people in their own right, with their own needs, limitations, and good and bad parts. A man or a woman who sees another individual as an object is seeing them through the lens of being able to satisfy a particular need — period. They do not have the capacity to think about the whole person or consequently a healthy, mature relationship— especially a romantic or sexual one.
So how do we tell the difference, especially in the early stages of a relationship where hormones and attraction chemistry can be running on high?! Here are some basic signs, and some personality tendencies that you can be aware of.
- A healthy attraction does not tend to focus overwhelmingly on a body part or a specific look, for instance a specific outfit. A healthy attraction can take genuine pleasure or appreciation in a trait or look, but clearly views it as a part of a whole personality.
- A mature individual will reflect back to you their attraction to subtleties or abstract qualities and less exclusively on concrete details that can be experienced as separate from the whole personality. For instance, if someone seems particularly focused on the way you look in a certain heeled shoe, this can be separated from you as a person — anyone can wear this shoe. If, on the other hand, they compliment you on the way your love of skiing has created great tone in your legs that are shown off in your new heels — they are appreciating you as a person with likes and particularities that make you an individual.
- A mature individual will also talk about other people as whole individuals. They will not tend to see the world in black or white — they will be able to talk about their boss, family, or friends as having good and bad traits. A person who objectifies will tend to see some people as all good and others as all bad, and will talk about other people in their lives in fairly shallow terms.
- Someone who objectifies will tend to have a lesser capacity for true empathy. This is because when we see others as whole people, we also can see through their eyes, appreciate how they are different from us, and recognize their likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses. These capacities are associated with empathy with another person's point of view. If you are dating someone who does not seem to be able to empathize with you or with others, you may want to pay closer attention to their relationship to your body as well. They may show other signs of objectifying you.
- Someone who objectifies will take short lived, if intense, pleasure in a look, body part, or sexual experience. Objectified pleasure does not extend into true appreciation that can lead to appreciation and pleasure in the subtler dimensions of your body or an intimate experience. Again, this goes back to the way that objectification is about fulfilling an immediate need. Once that need is satiated, the subject's attention tends to move on to something else — the next need on the horizon.
Remember, most people do not fit into extremes — either all objectification or none. Pay attention to the trends in your relationship. And most importantly, pay attention to how you feel! When someone is objectifying you, you are likely to feel less appreciated. Your own pleasure may feel shallow or short lived. You may notice your attention drifting, your mind wandering, wondering what your partner is feeling. You will tend to feel less genuinely connected if objectification is present.
Pay attention to these signs, as they can be red flags to more serious issues down the road. Want to know more? Please feel free to contact me to discuss your personal situation.