Do women’s bodies exist for the benefit of men or children?

woman's head replaced by a black balloon

It’s hardly news to point out that advertising often involves women’s bodies. According to sociologist Stephanie Baran:

…[M]ost advertisers rely on the old adage, ‘sex sells.’

Nothing “sells” quite like a woman’s body, particularly her breasts.

…[I]n patriarchal culture women are meat and are to be consumed in a variety of ways. Therefore, advertising is, in a sense, visualized patriarchy—the actual visualization of patriarchal ideas and social norms.

Baran approvingly offers this quote from a colleague:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Women’s bodies exist to be consumed by others, either as sexualized for the pleasure of men or as “designed” for the nurture of children.[/pullquote]

“…[D]ominant gender ideologies, as exemplified by the media, consistently paint women as sexual objects, highlighting their bodies as being mainly for the pleasure of men instead of as multidimensional (i.e., including both reproductive and sexual functions).”

It seems to me that Baran got it only half right. Here’s what I would say:

Women’s bodies exist to be consumed by others, either as sexualized for the pleasure of men or as “designed” for the nurture of children. Women have no right to make choices about their own bodies since their bodies exist for others’ enjoyment.

This is the up to the minute iteration of the madonna-whore dichotomy.

The women’s movement has made us more sensitive to the deliberate sexualization of women for the enjoyment of others. We are currently experiencing a watershed moment in our recogniztion of such sexualization and the damage that it does to women.

The recent revelations that powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer thought that women’s bodies were there for the taking has dominated the media despite the fact that there is nothing new about this behavior; indeed the behavior of many of these men has been an open secret for decades. What’s new is that women’s claims are finally being taken seriously; they are no longer being gaslighted (told it didn’t happen), no longer being counseled to simply accept it as the price of having a job, no longer having their concerns dismissed as the “normal” behavior of men.

Are we finally willing to accept that women’s bodies belong to themselves, for the enjoyment of themselves and for them to protect from being used by others? Hardly.

The dominant paradigm for mothering today, natural or “attachment” mothering, rests on the foundational belief that women’s bodies exist for the enjoyment and nurture of children.

Women are pressured to endure the excruciating pain of childbirth for the “benefit” of the baby. Women are pressured to breastfeed for a year or more for the “benefit” of the baby. Women are encouraged to forgo employment because they must stay in close physical proximity to their babies 24/7/365 for the “benefit” of those babies. When they express unhappiness they are gaslighted, counseled to simply accept it as the price of having children, or told that nature “designed” them for this task.

What about the benefits of the mother? Surely you are joking. Any woman who dares imagine that she has a right to avoid pain, a right to control her own breasts, a right to consider her own needs is pathologized as weak, lazy and selfish, the epitome of the bad mother.

The belief that a woman’s body belongs her children and not herself is rationalized by an appeal to nature. This is supposedly what women are “designed” to do. It’s further rationalized by ideology dressed up as science; but natural mothering is a subversion of science, cherry picking scientific findings to justify the pre-existing ideology that women’s bodies belong to others.

Breasts offer the archetypical examples for the way in which women’s bodies are supposed to exist for the benefit of men and children, but not for women themselves. Indeed, the issue of public breastfeeding is represented as a conflict between the needs of men and the needs of children.

Lactivists howl that breasts aren’t sexual; they don’t exist for the benefit of men (who supposedly sexualized them) but for the benefit of children. Disapproving busybodies insist that breasts exist for the titillation and enjoyment of men and therefore they should be hidden in polite society.

The idea that women might not want their breasts to be viewed the property of men to be ogled at will and to be groped by harassers is never considered. The idea that women might not want their breasts to be used as milk dispensers by babies is never considered. For most people the assumption that women’s breasts exist for the benefit of others is never even questioned. The only issue is who is entitled to benefit more, men or children. In other words, the only thing we need to know about a woman is whether she is a madonna or a whore.

But the madonna-whore dichotomy is a false dichotomy, not simply because there is no need to choose between the two, but because neither is accurate. A women is a PERSON and she is the ONLY one entitled to determine how her body is used. Women have the right to use their bodies for themselves and we must stop shaming women for simply treating their bodies as their own.