When is it OK to objectify men?

One of my favorite things to write about is the many contradictions one comes up against in trying to live according to feminist ideals. Despite our best efforts, there are times when our feelings and actions don’t match up with our ideology and we are left feeling like “bad feminists.” For me (and quite a few others), oogling hot, studly men is one of those times.

As Isaiah Mustafa clearly proved, women enjoy looking at beautiful men with their shirts off. I’m sure that didn’t surprise anyone either because we are currently living in a time where women’s sexual desires are, for the most part, acknowledged and even celebrated. Today, men groom and work their bodies to be more sexually attractive to women. Superstar Rihanna warns and taunts her lovers that they better be able to perform to her standards in a hit song. Sex and the City’s “Samantha” has become an icon of this brave new world of female sexual power. But it wasn’t always this way. Traditionally, women’s sexual desires were considered dirty, shameful, unnatural, evil… and if they weren’t being vilified, they were ignored.

As a result, the new freedom to be open – to own one’s sexual desire is empowering. And that empowerment is part of the reason oogling men like Isaiah Mustafa feels so good. (Besides the obvious, of course!) But oogling is problematic, and there is certainly a double standard at work when we talk about objectifying men’s bodies. When does one person’s empowerment become another’s oppression?

Women know all too well the consequences of objectification. In our new world of female sexual empowerment, men are beginning to learn them too. As men feel the pressure to conform to the standard of beauty in order to please women, they are falling prey to eating disorders, spending their hard-earned money on hair removal and personal grooming products, and most likely are experiencing low self-esteem if they don’t measure up to the assumed female fantasy. If they do measure up, they must deal with the feelings of low self-worth that comes from being treated as a “piece of meat,” and fight for respect as a human being with a brain.

Jezebel caused a small stir during the World Cup with a feature called “Thighlights” that highlighted the hotness of football players in action. They defended the oogling with some very interesting points. The first was that context matters, and that since men still have the upper hand in just about everything, it’s all in good sport. The second was a reminder that these men are at peak levels of fitness – and were not underweight or re-designed with plastic surgery. They also pointed out that the men were doing something they loved – playing football – not posing as objects to be looked at. Their final argument was about oogling as a form of women’s empowerment, which I discussed above.

These arguments are good, but as they are written, they only apply to situations where you’re oogling an athlete playing a sport. But I think they can apply to other situations as well, like for example, another type of performer who is healthy and enthusiastic about performing, like we assume Isaiah Mustafa is. Perhaps this should be a general litmus test for oogling: is he healthy, is he enthusiastic? But even this type of litmus test is not foolproof, as there is no fail-safe way to tell if someone is healthy (physically and emotionally) or enthusiastic (enthusiasm is often part of the performance) just by looking.

So should women feel guilty for oogling men? Probably a little. But as Jezebel argues, it’s all about context. Oogling involves an exchange of power; usually the oogler gains it and the oogled loses it. But many other activities and day-to-day experiences also involve exchanges of power, and in those exchanges, men are more likely to come out on top. If power was distributed equally in other situations, perhaps women should refrain from oogling. But it isn’t, and women are still in the red on the balance sheet of power. Until we’re in the black, I think it’s probably OK to objectify men, in certain circumstances (like the World Cup or Mustafa) and with the awareness that you’re doing it.

No one is a perfect feminist 100% of the time, and that’s okay. (Especially since we don’t know what a “perfect feminist” even is.) So, when you find yourself drooling over beautiful men, make the best of it. Ask yourself if they are healthy and enthusiastic participants; recognize and celebrate the fact that you are embracing your female sexual power; and try to remember that they have brains and feelings too. Once you’ve got all that out of the way, go ahead and put the “shameless” back in shameless objectification.