The Evolving Phases of Sexualizing Women: What has Changed Since Sojourner Truth?

Sojourner_Truth“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place, and ain’t I a woman? … I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me — and ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear the lash as well — and ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen most all sold off to slavery and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me — and ain’t I woman?”

‘Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.’

‘If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.’

These quotes are taken from the legendary speech that Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree) gave at the Women’s Right Convention in 1851 in Ohio. Her speech has saved the day for the Women’s Right Activists, who were having difficulty in making their case against the white men ministers, who backed up their argument of the superiority of men using the ‘manhood of Christ’. When the men made their argument of the ‘women’s place’, they were considering white middle class women, who were expected to be good house wives. The men said women shouldn’t be worried about voting and politics, since their role in the society is bearing children, taking care of their household and looking good for their husbands. When they claim those images for women, they have forgotten the black slave woman like Sojourner, who had to work as much as her men counterparts, in addition to carrying out her reproductive roles. Sojourner, an ex-slave, illiterate woman used her experience to challenge the conventional ways of how a woman is perceived in her ‘ain’t I a woman’ rhetoric that laid a strong foundation in demonstrating gender as a socially constructed role of women and men.

Sojourner Truth’s speech has also a particular significance for black women. By demonstrating her experience, Sojourner Truth was able to center the black woman’s experiences, who was invisible in the women’s movement because she is black and in the abolitionist movement because she is a woman.

What I would like to discuss here is how the gender role or expected images of women has evolved since Truth has made that speech and came to what they are today. Yes, women are no more just mere wives and a shadow of their husbands anymore. Women can do and be whatever they like today.

With all the liberation women have achieved over the years, however, today, women are facing a different kind of challenge that is demeaning the hard work of Truth’s and her fellow activists. We have come to the era when objectification of women has reached at its peak. The difference is, this time it is not only men who are promoting the sexualisation of women in daily activities, but we women ourselves. And for this, no one could be a testimony more than our computer and TV screens that assert to us everyday that to sell a certain product; we have to attribute naked and flashy women with it.

Young girls are highly challenged in determining who they want to become vis-à-vis the Paris Hilton and Britney Spears images that the media is constantly throwing at them. Recently in one of Dr. Phil’s show about troubled teen girls, a 14 year old guest who is convinced that she has to dress ‘sexy’ to get approval from men, said she wants to be ‘famous’ when asked what her career goal is. I am guessing she got the line from Pussycat Dolls’ big hit ‘when I grow up, I wanna be famous…I wanna have boobies’! The thing is she is not the only one. Perpetuated by the media and such songs in a daily basis, girls are exposed to ideas as of being ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ at early age, which restricts their mental growth by focusing on the physical.

When it comes to the commodification of the woman’s body, music clips take the number one responsibility. For a song to hit the top chart, it has to show more skin. We are witnessing that artists with better singing ability would not get recognition just because they choose to do things in a more decent way. The rule is if you want to sell it, dirty it up!  This specially is the case in almost all Rap and hip hop videos. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration if one states that black women are the most objectified human beings in these disgraceful videos. Thanks to BET, these videos that insult, ridicule and humiliate black women are finding their ways to the minds of our children.

The effects of these troubling facts related to sexualization of girls and women go beyond labelling our society as ‘sexist’. According to a study conducted by American Psychological Association the problem is responsible in increasing ‘impaired cognitive performance in college-aged women….., body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depressive affect, and even physical health problems.’

This shows that we can’t afford to give deaf ears for this problem. Therefore, celebrating Women’s day in March should not only trigger us to think about what women like Sojourner had done for our well being , but also influence us to address these challenges girls and women are facing today.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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