Objectification…in a good way, right?

I’ve been having thoughts on objectification. It seems to be a bit of a buzzword on my Facebook feed right now and I know that if I don’t blog then the thoughts will build up and spill out into unsuspecting conversations and potentially bore every person I know in real life. So perhaps typing will bring some order to my thoughts and make them less likely to burst upon my social circles.

As a parent, I read articles about the inherent addictive qualities of pornography and begin thinking of ways to address its risk with our kids. I wonder if there are attitudes/actions that I can model for them that would make pornography seem less appealing. Open communication about porn and a commitment to keep shaming out of my parenting are two of my highest goals, but another idea has slowly been forming: facilitate an awareness of the dangers of objectification.

American society generally agrees that the objectification of women in pornography is damaging. But I look at my 9 month old and I see my own objectification in his desires. I am his method of obtaining food, transportation (although this is increasingly rare!) and comfort. He knows nothing of my delight in cooking food that smells delicious or of my intense dislike of the sound of someone chewing chips. He knows nothing of the complexity that is “momma” and that is normal and healthy.

My 3 year old knows a bit more of the complexity of Momma. She has learned that Momma cries sometimes when she’s sad about people dying. She knows that too many potty accidents in one day make Momma “fwustawated.” She puzzles over the way that Momma laughs when Rainier rubs sweet potato in his hair, but frowns when Ellie Jo tries the same thing. I’m trying to be intentional about giving her information about me so that she can move from her infantile objectification of me into a more mature relationship as she grows.

I’ve been trying to apply some of that same line of thinking to other areas where I see people objectified in a “good” way.

I have several close family members who have gone through very difficult circumstances in the last year. As they have shared their ups and downs with the larger world I’ve been somewhat disturbed to notice the objectification of them as “inspirational.” Their stories don’t seem to inspire as much relational “Wow, life is really hard sometimes. Thanks for sharing the ways it is hard for you. That helps me to not feel so alone” as they inspire “You are so much more stronger/braver/happier/spiritual/thoughtful than I am. I need to be more like you when things are difficult. Thanks for sharing how awesome you are.” I have felt some of the alienation as those comments put my family members on a pedestal and make them super-human. The things they say are given more weight than the things said by “other” people. The things they do are seen through the lens of their grief and struggle.

Instead of being a complex fellow human being, people that I love have become “person who has gone through a hard time.” And I don’t really believe that relationships are built, strengthened or maintained through that type of objectification. In the same way that Ellie Jo and I cannot connect on a very deep level while she is using me to meet her needs, people who idealize the words and stories of “person who has gone through a hard time” are using those experience without connecting to the human being living them.

And don’t even get me started on the objectification that we have experienced with being “person who has lived in Africa…”

Once my mind began recognizing the concrete reality of objectification I realized that it constantly surrounds us. In politics the right tries to pin the left down on buzzwords and platforms while the left turns around and does the exact same thing to the right. Those on welfare are objectified as lazy while the rich are objectified as entitled. Children are objectified as “the spoiled one” or “the athletic one” or “the helpful one” and they begin to build identities around their object status. My grandma called one of my brothers her “little ham boy” for years and he dutifully gobbled up ham at her house because he knew that was expected.

None of these things facilitates deep relationships. None of these things helps me to understand people who are different from me. Objectification allows me to boil someone down to a skeleton (or less) of themselves and think that I know the whole story. It allows me say that my children are hysterical without recognizing their recent sugar crash, loud without recognizing their excitement and  disobedient without recognizing my failure to clearly communicate my expectations.

So what was my original thought again? I want to help my children feel weird about someone being objectified. I want them to crave connection with other humans instead of impersonally using some part of another person or another person’s story. I want them to see the complexity that lies around them and inside of them. I want them to get to know “person who has…” for more than just the big stories.

While conversations about objectification are a completely separate realm from conversations about addiction, I’m beginning to suspect that they can and will play a big part in how we approach porn in our household. These musings are leading me to consider how they will inform the way I parent, the way I present myself to my kids, the way I apologize for my mistakes, the way I address my kids’ behavior, the way I talk about politics at the dinner table, the way I handle family conflicts. And I hope that, someday, if the need should arise, that it will help me to converse with my child as a whole person, not as “person who is addicted,” but as a complex, beautiful, lovable human being.

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