The Objectification of People

These Women Are Too This, Too That, Too the Other. Those Men Can’t Wear Those Clothes, They Need to Look a Lot Smarter

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

I sometimes get asked to take part in focus groups, to be part of a discussion where I give my opinion on products or services, where I share my thinking on things that are happening in the world, from politics to economics and much more in between.

The following two stories are stories where I witnessed the objectification of people.

STORY 1:

These Women Are Too This, These Women Are Too That, These Women Are Too the Other — These comments were In relation to age, size and colour … I felt sick in my stomach hearing those words …

I was taking part in a focus group discussion about a clothing brand which was looking to re-energise itself, and also to reach different audiences. It was an all-women’s group aged over 50.

We were given a homework task before attending, which was to think about what influenced us in the world of clothing: ’influencers’ we were aware of, people who wrote blogs or used social media channels such as Instagram to get their thinking out into the world, brands we liked, who were doing a good job within their industry, magazines we read, commercials we’d seen, anything that had influenced us, things we liked and also things we didn’t like.

During the discussion, we were introduced to the brand — which we all recognised as a high-street retail chain. While many of us had shopped there in the past, none of us had shopped there in recent years. This was because we associated it with being for a younger age group.

We were shown their marketing campaign material: posters, TV advertising, their catalogue, their social media platforms, photos, blogs and so on.

The brand wanted to reach women of our age, and the focus group was designed to discover what they needed to do in order to achieve this.

In sharing their thoughts and opinions, the women in the group said: These Women Are Too This, These Women Are Too That, These Women Are Too the Other. These comments were in relation to age, size and colour …

I felt sick in my stomach hearing these words, and a voice in my head was screaming: NO, PLEASE STOP! STOP objectifying women, STOP making it about a woman’s age, her size, the colour of her skin. STOP being part of what has become the norm: the norm of individuals, the norm of groups, the norm of society. STOP being women who objectify women. Just STOP it now.

While everything going on in my head was causing me to feel sickened and enraged, I wanted to express this in a way that demonstrated my thinking, without alienating the rest of the group.

In my mind, I asked myself what I could say in this moment that would allow me to express that I think what is going on is the objectification of women, and that I’m not OK with that. The self-feedback that came to me in that moment was that I could do this by talking about and sharing the book the homework task had taken me to.

Book Wisdom

The book was Dreaming of Dior by Charlotte Smith. The premise of the book is that every dress tells a story. Smith writes about the inheritance she received from her American Quaker godmother, Doris Darnell. How the boxes started arriving, with more than three thousand pieces dating from 1790 to 1995, from Dior and Chanel originals to a dainty pioneer dress. How it was when she unearthed her godmother’s book of stories, that the true value of what she had been bequeathed hit home. This wasn’t merely a collection of beautiful things, it was a collection of life. Women’s lives. Tiny snapshots of our joys and disappointments, our entrances and exits, triumphant and tragic.

I shared the story of how I came to discover this book. My mum was born in an era when women always dressed up when leaving the house: not for a night on the tiles, but for everyday occasions, such as a trip to the local grocery store. I always remember her looking elegant, and she had a penchant for clothes and accessories. Sadly, towards the end of my mum’s life, she developed dementia, which progressed quite rapidly. She had to go into a retirement home as she required round the clock care. As a family we felt we’d lost her: the dementia took away aspects of her personality and parts of her memory. She just wasn’t the same anymore and it was heart-breaking.

When we went to visit, she always knew us, but as soon as we left she wouldn’t remember we’d been there. We also couldn’t have a conversation with her, because she just couldn’t remember things, and she’d become frustrated and agitated. It was too upsetting for her.

My mum had a love of reading, and over the years along with books, she also enjoyed reading fashion magazines. Sadly, she was no longer able to read, and wanting to find a way of spending time with her, I began to think about books I could read to her, which she would enjoy. Thinking about it in terms of what she loved in her life led me to discovering Dreaming of Dior by Charlotte Smith.

My mum loved it. She’d listen as I read the stories of the fabulous dresses and their adventures. She looked at the beautiful images of the dresses, which had been illustrated by Grant Cowan — an illustrator who worked on magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and Red Magazine. Our time spent together in this way seemed to have a calming effect on my mum. She was always less agitated and more relaxed, and my sister would tell me of how she’d show her the book when she visited — she remembered it was in her bedside locker.

I went on to share what I believed to be:

Sage Wisdom

Dresses are about where they take women, where women take their dresses, the adventures they go on together, the experiences and memories they create, which remain within their hearts and minds, and will continue to live on through the stories women tell about their dresses.

Words of Wisdom

“A dress can hold a lifetime of memories for a woman.” Charlotte Smith

Epilogue

While I have no way of knowing the impact my words, my thinking, or the story I shared had on the brand’s marketing campaign, it did have an impact on the women in the room, as they each began sharing stories of dresses they had been on an adventure with: a dress they wore on a special date, a dress they wore to an event which they had a fond memory of, a dress they wore when they were travelling and exploring new and different places.

My story took the conversation away from objectifying women by their age, size or colour of their skin, to sharing stories that were meaningful to each woman in the room.

Today’s featured book is: Dreaming of Dior by Charlotte Smith

STORY 2:

Those Men Can’t Wear Those Clothes, They Need to Look a Lot Smarter, They Need to Wear White Coats, That Will Make Them Look Smarter … I felt sick in my stomach hearing these words …

I was taking part in a focus group about back pain. It was an all-women’s group, and we’d all experienced back pain in our lives. For some women, it was from childbirth, for others from an accident. For me it was caused when I spent six months backpacking around Australia, when unable to leave my books at home, I instead loaded up my backpack with them, putting too much strain on my back, causing me to slip a disc; and once it happened once, it happened frequently, until I was able to find a way to prevent it from happening.

The market research focus group had been commissioned by two men: both of whom had significant experience working with people who had suffered severe back pain. As well as both of them having private practices, they each had specific areas of expertise within the world of sports: one of them worked with grand-prix racing drivers, and the other with world-cup rugby teams, both sports put great strain on participant’s backs, causing extreme pain and injury.

They had come together to combine their knowledge, skills and expertise, creating an online platform which comprised of videos demonstrating techniques and simple practices that people could do in their own home to help alleviate and overcome back pain. This was offered as a stand-alone service, and also in support of in-person treatments with practitioners who they had trained, who were providing their services throughout the UK.

We were shown a video in which both men shared the story of their work, and then each of them demonstrated different techniques wearing the clothes they worked in — sweat pants and T-shirts. Immediately on the video finishing, one woman said: “Those Men Can’t Wear Those Clothes, They Need to Look a Lot Smarter, They Need to Wear White Coats, That Will Make Them Look Smarter.”

I felt sick in my stomach hearing those words. and that voice was back in my head screaming: NO, PLEASE STOP! STOP OBJECTIFYING. As women, we don’t want to be objectified, what then makes it OK to objectify men?

While everything going on in my head was causing me to feel sickened and enraged, I was back at wanting to express this in a way that demonstrated my thinking, without alienating the rest of the group. So, once again in my mind, I asked myself what I could say in this moment that would allow me to express that I think what is going on is the objectification of men, and that I’m not OK with that. The self-feedback that came to me in that moment was that I could do this by simply bringing it back to what the woman had said about the clothes they should be wearing, and then try to move it on from there.

I said: “For me, white coats would make it very clinical. The clothes they’re wearing actually demonstrate to me that they know their work, and they know what’s needed in order for them to be comfortable in being able to move in carrying out their work.” I went on to say how the best treatment I’d had was from a woman who was dressed in clothes similar to both men, which allowed her to really get stuck in — in performing the hands-on treatment, which enabled me to walk out of her surgery upright and free of pain; and how this differed from seeing practitioners who wore white coats, which reflected the clinical approach of their treatment — which was hands off, apart from a little poking and prodding, and was totally ineffective.

I then said how to me the stories both men shared demonstrated their skills and expertise, along with their passion, and that was what impressed me most.

I wanted to bring the conversation back to what the facilitator had told us that the men hoped to get from this focus group discussion, which was: Do we think the platform they’re creating is something people would use, something people find helpful, and something people would pay for.

So I shared my story of how I first began to overcome my back pain.

Book Wisdom

It was long before YouTube or online video platforms, when in a search for what I could do myself to overcome my back pain I discovered the book: Body Learning — An Introduction to the Alexander Technique by Michael J. Gelb.

The book gave me insights into how the Alexander Technique helps maintain the health and efficiency of the human body, by putting us in touch with our body, and giving us a way of deepening our perceptions and well-being. The approach it took in teaching the techniques was simple. For example, “Allow the neck to be free to let the head go forward and up so that the back may lengthen and widen”, was a direction I remembered.

I went on to say that over time and over the years I discovered video demonstrations of the Alexander Technique, which I found to be really helpful, and what the men were proposing with the service they were developing was in a way similar to what I’d discovered with the Alexander Technique demonstrations, and so I believed there was scope for their idea.

My approach worked in bringing the conversation away from objectifying the men by the clothes they were wearing, to the techniques they were demonstrating, and considering how beneficial the platform they’re creating could be to people — would people use it? would people find it helpful? and is it something people would pay for?

Sage Wisdom

All of the women began to share their experiences, which was in effect Sage Wisdom. They shared their discoveries in being able to manage their back pain, many of which were video tutorials — tips and techniques, along with support being offered by local GPs and the NHS (National Health Service), health and sports centres, organisations for employees. They talked about ways in which these men could work with GPs, the NHS, health and sports centres, and organisations, by way of offering their services to reach wider audiences.

Epilogue

As the group was nearing the end, the facilitator said she’d just pop next door to ask if there were any further questions from the clients — who had been observing from the room next door! She wasn’t explicit in letting us know who was observing at the beginning of the session. She now explained this was because the men wanted to get our feedback based on what we really thought — rather than what we thought they wanted to hear, which might have been the case had we known they were observing. However she had told us at the beginning that as it was a focus group, and we were in a viewing facility, there were people observing, and our conversation was also being recorded — this was to ensure that everything we said was captured, allowing her to facilitate the discussion without having to make notes. She came back in with both men, who laughingly asked: “So what can we wear that will make us look smart?” They had taken what had been said in a good-natured way, and while I don’t think they wanted to get across any underlying message with that question, that is exactly what they achieved.

As I left the building with the other women, the woman who had said those words said how mortified she was in saying what she said. She hadn’t meant to objectify the men by the clothes they were wearing, but now recognised that’s exactly what she had done.

Words of Wisdom

The golden rule is the principle of treating others as you want to be treated.

Today’s featured book is: Body Learning — An Introduction to the Alexander Technique by Michael J. Gelb

WorkLife Book Wisdom Stories:

The intention of the stories I share is to inspire you through people’s stories of their WorkLife experiences. Through these stories, you will learn about people’s dreams and ambitions, along with the challenges, obstacles, failures and successes they encountered along the road of their WorkLife journey. And how they used the power of book wisdom to help them find the inspiration and guidance to navigate their path to live their WorkLife with passion, purpose and pride.

My hope is that these book wisdom stories will help you throughout the chapters of your WorkLife Story.

I believe stories are a powerful mechanism for teaching, a powerful medium to learn through, and a powerful way to communicate who you are and what you stand for.

Published by Carmel O' Reilly

Carmel O’ Reilly: WorkLife Learning Practitioner & Writer Author of School Of WorkLife Books & Your WorkLife Your Way: Created to help you manage your WorkLife Learning Blogger & Podcaster: Telling people’s powerful stories about WorkLife challenges & successes Founder of www.schoolofworklife.com My guiding statement is to help people pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, passion, purpose and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes that are accessible to everyone.

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