We live in an era when women increasingly demand to be treated equally with men. In the United States, this effort has had some success, at least in contrast to some of the appalling conditions that women endure elsewhere in the world. Despite these efforts, women’s civil and human rights are not yet, and not nearly, fully realized. My premise is that women’s cultural status as property is an unappreciated dynamic in this struggle. This four-part article examines the evidence for, and the implications of, this provocative idea, beginning with this introduction. Future sections will examine the historical roots of this cultural phenomenon, its contemporary consequences, and its role in psychotherapy.
To illustrate this dynamic, consider the impact of a recent televised panel discussion. The subject matter was serious: tax policy, national security and government corruption. The panel comprised one man and four women with strikingly different gender presentations. The male pundit was dressed in business attire: a grey pin-striped suit, a dress shirt with a serious tie, lace-up shoes. The only skin exposed was his face and hands. He wore no visible jewelry. He radiated competence, trustworthiness and even gravitas.
The women, who sat two on each side of him, presented themselves in marked contrast:
- They wore brightly colored skimpy dresses with high hemlines that exposed their legs to the mid-thigh. Their feet flaunted spike high-heel shoes.
- Their shoulders and arms were bare, as were portions of their chests, sometimes revealing the upper breasts. Their fingernails were varnished in different colors.
- Their faces were heavily made-up. Black lines circled their eyes. Their eyelashes were augmented with mascara or were false and unnaturally long. Their eyebrows were plucked and shaped to extend above the normal brow line. Their teeth were bleached an unnatural white.
- Jewelry hung from their ears and on their wrists and around their necks.
It was clear that they had spent considerable time and money on their external appearance. Through voluntary physical alterations, exposure of unclothed portions of the body and the use of expensive accessories each of the women displayed an augmented but artificial version of herself.
Assume that these four female experts voluntarily presented themselves as described (rather than, for instance, on orders of the show’s producers, exploiting them for higher ratings) what benefit did they hope to derive? They expected to show themselves in the best possible light and their extensive and elaborate enhancements were designed to help them do so. That expectation underlies the pervasive cultural attitude that much of a woman’s worth depends on her external appearance. In an online article titled, “My eyelashes are fake. My PhD is real,” one of them wrote: “I like to dress up…I feel more fierce when I look fierce⎯I get better results. My arguments are clearer. My energy is higher. My political values are shinier. Frankly, I make more of a difference.” This woman feels more valuable if her external appearance is enhanced.
Think of the cognitive dissonance created by this presentation of self. The four women were as admirable a group as can be found on TV. They were impressive representatives of their particular areas of expertise. They held high level positions in their respective fields. They were intelligent, well-educated, articulate, knowledgeable and insightful. Their contributions to the discussion often outshone the man. Why, then, did they need to present themselves as if at a frivolous social event? Anyone who watched that TV episode with the sound muted might mistakenly conclude that a thoughtful, important man was surrounded by a coterie of “party girls.” The discrepancy invites the question: why, in the 21st Century, should women still be judged on different grounds than their male peers? In Martin Luther King, Jr’s words, shouldn’t women “be judged by the content of their character?”
The women themselves seem painfully aware of the problem. “The degrading of the background” of these women, one of them recently tweeted, “is getting pretty old. They’ve done it for years w/ the women there, saying they’re just bimbos in short skirts, when they’re actually lawyers, Drs., former admin officials, combat pilots, Harvard grads, etc.” In spite of this awareness, however, they continue to present themselves in this exaggerated, unnatural and artificial fashion. They may even celebrate this presentation, as did the PhD with false eyelashes.
Like the four panelists, modern women are still expected, and even encouraged, to emphasize their physical features. The unintended result is a demonstration of their objectified status. Anything that is mainly judged by its externals⎯houses, furniture, clothing, jewelry⎯is considered a piece of property. Supply and demand determine its market value. Judged only by external physical attributes a human being can also be considered property. In interpersonal transactions, that person may become a commodity whose value is established by economic rules. Unfortunately, when women present themselves with an artificially enhanced appearance, and especially when they overemphasize individual parts of their anatomy, they invite their treatment as property, or to use the legal term, as chattel. Property status affects women’s freedom, equality and liberty. It encourages their exploitation by powerful men. It influences their choice of a mate and their marital life, regulates their public presentation, impacts childbearing, undermines their physical safety and distorts their career progress.