by Anupriya Dhonchak 
Nike’s 90 seconds “Dream Crazier” advertisement, released last month during the Oscars stirred a multitude of emotion and introspection in both female and male viewers. It is a beautiful representation of sportswomen and their resilience despite being called “crazy” or “too emotional”. It shows that “masculine” qualities such as physical strength and ambition can co-exist with “feminine” ones such as emotional outbursts without taking away from the value and status of the female athlete. It is a remarkable segue into a conversation about exuding power and facilitating its reclamation. Serena Williams narrates it and the all-female star athletes’ cast includes gymnast Simone Biles, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing for the U.S. Olympic team), snowboarder Chloe Kim, and members of the US Women’s National Soccer Team.
Dr. Sandra Faulkner notes, sportswomen are subversive for realising their desire to experience their physicality in a society that alienates them from their bodies and denies them agency and decision-making autonomy over their bodies. Similarly Fatimah Asghar, a Pakistani-Kashmiri-American poet writes from the margins assuming the power societally denied to her in one of her poems, “Neptune is bitch-sobbing in my rear view/ and I got my running shoes on and all this sky that’s all mine.” The poem called ‘Pluto Shits on the Universe’ uses Pluto’s unpredictable ‘chaotic’ orbit and resultant discreditation from planet status to make a statement about freedom, defiance, ownership and cheerful abandon as well as a joyful resistance to tragic categorisation.
As the Nike ad shows, athletics for women are often about taking up space as opposed to shrinking, cultivating self-sufficiency, purpose, direction and a means to channel the power and potential of the wealth of our emotions. It is a tremendous relief to see that advertisements like these are commended in an overlapping space where Gillette was scathingly condemned for being ‘radical’ enough to denounce toxic masculinity through its ad: ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’. However, in a paradigm of capitalist marketing and its monetization of tokenistic feminism, ads like ‘Dream Crazier’ only deceptively purport to ‘empower’ women by selling them a particular self-concept as a freebie along with the advertising brand’s marketed products.
Due to the proliferation of technology and social media targeting, westernised and sexually objectifying images of women are being circulated at an unprecedented frequency and speed. This has made women all over the world particularly vulnerable to self-objectification by comparing themselves to a westernised beauty standard (Aubrey, 2006; Hanna et al., 2017). Although, research shows that similar levels of interpersonal self-objectification were reported by white and ethnic minority women (Moradi & Huang, 2008) as well as heterosexual and sexual minority women (Hill & Fischer, 2008; Kozee et al., 2007), women of color and many more are otherized and disparately impacted by the dominant beauty standard of a heterosexual, thin, white body. Further, there may be varying criteria and idiosyncratic nuances across cultures and sexually objectifying environments which create qualitative differences in the causes and experience of self-objectification among women. For instance, African American women are often stereotyped as sexual aggressors and savages (Greene, 1994; Thomas, Witherspoon, & Speight, 2004); Asian women are fetishized and infantilised as submissive and exotic whereas women in the lower strata of society are depicted as overly sexed, untamed and crude (Pharr, 1988; Smith, 2008).
Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões flickr – Fire tale (1997) – Paula Rego (1935)
Self-Objectification through Sportswear Ads:
Advertising uses products as promises. It sells fantasies to viewers, dangling baits before them to buy the product, look the part and purchase claim to self-esteem, sex appeal and attractiveness (Lambiase & Reichert, 2003). Critique of objectifying sportswear ads thus far has focused on its tendency to impede female athletes’ abilities because it makes women overwhelmingly concerned about their appearances to the detriment of their concentration on their sport. Research reveals that self-objectification positively correlates to lower internal bodily awareness and more disconnection from bodily functions as well as difficulties in task performance apart from body shame, appearance anxiety, depression and eating disorders. While depicting sportswomen in the ad, Nike focuses on the connection that the athletes experience with their bodies and emotions, it highlights their abilities not appearance, their performance not aesthetics.
However, I intend to go beyond this critique and lay threadbare the oppression that is whitewashed into ‘empowerment’ when the performance becomes the aesthetic. I argue in this piece how the ad glosses over the reality of the constricted space and physicality of women and conceals that the distinction between abilities and qualities vs only appearance is continuously blurred in capitalist media’s representation of successful women. The Nike ad ends with a supremely motivational, ‘If they call you crazy, show them what crazy can do’. I intend to highlight what is lost in the depiction of women’s bodies and identities for their potential to prove their strength and competence to them i.e. men in a male centred, male identified and male-dominated culture.
The ad shows that women can shun traditional beauty ideals and we hail it as progressive. However, it blurs the subtext of the heavy cost that women have to pay to shun these ideals- by being a paragon of health, body perfection and athletic ability. This pressure ceases to be an impetus for self-improvement and becomes a progenitor of self-objectification.
The Need to be Liked:
Simone De Beauvoir noted in her philosophical treatise, ‘The Second Sex’ that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” refuting the male manufactured myths about women’s nature and anatomy as invariant and factual. She emphasised instead that the body assigned to the female sex at birth is socialised and acculturated into the process of becoming a woman and learning traditional gender roles. Women’s need to be liked is systemically reinforced. Betty Friedan referred to the Feminine Mystique as “the strange discrepancy between the realities of our lives as women and the image which we are trying to conform to”. Naomi Wolf noted in her book, The Beauty Myth, “as the economy, law, religion, sexual mores, education, and culture were forcibly opened up to include women more fairly, a private reality colonized female consciousness.” The beauty myth exerts social control over this lost ground by morphing to adapt to changing circumstances and “checkmates women’s attempts to increase their power” (Wolf, 1990). It exploits and invades women’s vulnerable sense of self-worth by operating as a cultural censor and a prescriptor of behaviour. It infuses the female psyche with self-loathing, guilt and the terror of falling short of unachievable standards of perfection (Wolf, 1990).
Put simply, we have been burdened with and internalised expectations of measuring up to conventional standards of delicate traditional feminine beauty. Thus, advertisements with hyper-muscular women overachieving seem like progress. It is important, however, to regard this progress with a pinch of salt for two reasons. Firstly, the notions of beauty are expanded, but only so far as the female athletic body emerges as a new beauty standard and another specie of self-objectification.
Secondly, the idea of athletic perfection, extraordinary performance, unwavering concentration, commitment, and ambition in the face of rampant obstacles allows women to purchase a claim to their dreams. However, it also instils feelings of inadequacy in them for being distracted, unfit or plain ordinary. “Show them what crazy can do” allows women to access self-respect only by proving and disciplining themselves.
Purchasing a Claim not just to Beauty but Ambition, Success and Confidence
As per traditional objectification theory, women in sexually saturated cultures such as western culture are considered objects and regarded through the gaze of others. Objectification of female athletes can be said to occur when their physical appearance and attractiveness receive inordinate focus compared to their athletic performance. Going beyond this framework, I critique the reduction of women’s bodies to instrumentalities for the achievement of external markers of identity such as material success and body perfection.
The construction of novel feminities around sexual confidence, assertiveness and autonomy conceal what Robert Goldman calls ‘the diverse forms of terror experienced by women who objectify themselves’. Self-objectification by women is particularly insidious and pernicious because it entrenches itself through the masquerade of ‘free choice’. The external male gaze morphs into a self-policing narcissistic gaze as it becomes internalized in a novel disciplinary regime. Women are promised power as objects of desire and thus, self-objectification in the guise of ‘empowerment’ insulates itself from feminist critique. Women are convinced that by focusing on their appearance, they are bolstering their economic and social capital and not just pursuing a shallow beauty ideal for improving their appearance per se.
The Right to Leisure
The ability to just be, still remains out of reach and we find ourselves in a quagmire constantly seeking validation from others and from ourselves. Perhaps we don’t have the luxury to relax. Or perhaps, members of the All India Women’s Conference, 1946 were remarkably more revolutionary in their politics than the white feminists creating advertisement content in 2019, for envisaging for women a constitutional right to leisure. In patriarchal societies, women cannot loiter aimlessly, or luxuriate out of choice in boredom or leisure. They are either coercively confined to the comfort of their homes or they must be ceaselessly driven by a purpose to be deemed worthy of the opportunities they receive, which remain inaccessible to other women who could be potentially more driven and hence, greater assets to the sisterhood.
We brutally reduce ourselves to instrumentalities for proving a point in a patriarchal world that sets us up to fail and makes us feel that our daily defeats are both deeply personal and include letting other women down as well. Such self-objectification can be soul crushing and humiliating for it fails to allow us to acknowledge our own complete imperfect humanity.
The inadequacy of Eurocentric Feminism
Critical race theorist, M. Matsuda notes that both mainstream media and philosophy subordinate women’s experiential knowledge to false abstract presumptions. This is not to say that women do not have individual dreams or ambition but that when such ambition is sold emphatically as respectful, it also seems like a prerequisite for self-respect.
Eisenstein notes that North American feminism is grounded in ‘the competitive, atomistic ideology of liberal individualism’. Eurocentric feminism is commendable for its attempts to restore to women the rights that unjust sociocultural relations deprive them of. However, this expression of rights as only ‘negative’ liberties, i.e. free from external oppressive forces, falls short of a conceptualisation of positive empowerment which is an equally valid form of human flourishing. The potentialities of human personality should be open to attributing value to warmth, humour, conversation, laziness, spontaneity and enjoying the talents and differences of each other (Rohrlich & Hoffman, 1984). Feminist thought involves placing human need and life above property, profit and even individual rights (Kaplan, 1982), beautifully captured by J. Oppenheimer’s poem, Bread and Roses- Our lives shall not be sweetened/ From birth until life closes/ Hearts starve as well as bodies/ Give us bread and give us roses.
Diversity in representation, apart from accommodating a plurality of actors, must also entail diversity in content. Different women with different identities should be represented with a range of performances, aspirations and pursuits. The burden of living a nobler life and engaging in higher, intellectual and moral pleasures befalls women disproportionately. We need to see, respect and appreciate more women even if they are only lounging lazily or chatting with each other. These activities may be freely chosen and just as fulfilling and joyous as any other ‘pleasure’ characterised by men as a ‘higher pleasure’. Fighting the patriarchy is exhausting. On some days though, we can also put up resistance by validating the presumed invalidity of our joy and comfort as ends in themselves.
Advertisements like ‘Dream Crazier’ allow us to revel in the delight of our persistent struggles culminating into moments of triumph. They celebrate us competing in erstwhile exclusively male bastions. However, somewhere down the line it is equally important to ask, who are we competing against and on what terms? Given the conditions, female achievement in certain prized arenas continues to be an exception and not the norm, which is why it is pedestalised. However, I hope it only empowers us and does not diminish our self-worth when we come to terms with our ordinariness. I hope it does not make us feel ashamed of our softness and vulnerability. Lastly, I hope that in our staunch and fierce pursuit to prove them wrong, we continue to have the radical courage to be compassionate and gentle with ourselves.
Anupriya Dhonchak is reading law in the third year at National Law University, Delhi. She is an Editor of the NLU Delhi Journal of Legal Studies. She has worked on various policy projects on women’s rights under Constitutional and Criminal Law as a Research Assistant to feminist academics, including Ms. Pratiksha Baxi, Dr. Aparna Chandra and Dr. Mrinal Satish. She has also worked with Dr. Saumya Saxena, Ms. Pamela Philipose, Ms. Urvashi Butalia and Prof. Zoya Hasan in researching for and organizing the first Summer Journalism Institute for Women by Academe India. Her interest in writing this article also derives from her representation of her State in 5 National Badminton Championships in India.
- John Stuart Mill stated that some types of pleasures are superior to others by virtue of their inherent qualities. Critics contend that there can be no measurement of the distinction between higher and lower pleasures. For criticism of Mill’s qualitative hedonism, see F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies.