The Soapbox: On The World Cup, Objectification & The Problem With Thigh Candy

When my feminist friends and I began our communal Facebook message thread, we envisioned a no-holds-barred place to discuss careers, gender politics, and the gospel of Beyoncé. But ever since soccer season took the Internet by storm, our only mentions of “Flawless” have concerned abs. In the past week alone, my “progressive” peers and I shared 10 “World Cup Hottie” listicles, 18 winky faces, and too many Netherlands-based puns to count.

As over-the-top as our behavior was, we were never ashamed. There was an implicit empowerment to our objectification, like a hard-earned reward for eons of inequality. Even when I read our conversation (and watched a video of Ronaldo slow-motion jogging) in a very public, very crowded coffee shop, I didn’t bother to turn down my laptop brightness. If anyone saw my screen, I trusted they would be impressed: I wasn’t some creepy guy browsing Google images of Megan Fox — I was a proud woman, flaunting the sex drive to which I was entitled!
As a 25-year-old raised in the Midwest, I grew up very familiar with feminism’s image issue. Amidst the Indiana cornfields, most people seemed content with traditional gender roles. Equal rights advocacy remained tied to perceptions of bra-burning and bitchiness. When I explained to my mother that I identified with the “f-word,” she said fine, as long as I shaved my armpits. Then she made me confirm — twice — that I wasn’t a lesbian.

Hollywood echoed my mom’s discomfort: Lana Del Rey and Shailene Woodley recently shied away from the word feminism, the latter citing disagreement with its “man-hater” connotations. But those connotations were exactly why I felt empowerment in appreciating Ronaldo’s nipples. If I could prove that women’s rights and Adonis Belts could coexist — if I could embrace sex-positive feminism —then maybe I could help soften the movement’s old maid image. An equality advocate tweeting about sweat-slicked Brazilian men felt reformist, the way Pope Francis did he agreed to debate celibacy.It seemed like everybody won: I got to gaze into the chiseled crease behind Thomas Müeller’s knees, and girl power somehow gained a cool factor.

But when the initial World Cup bustle died down, I was left with a sinking feeling: an awareness of how much I hated my movement’s stigmas, especially because they reflected poorly on me. It was easy to hide my sex-positivity behind the guise of retribution. If anyone asked, I wasn’t ogling Ezequiel Lavezzi’s tattoos to make my beliefs easier to swallow — I was doing it because it was women’s turn to stare (and because they were great tattoos). If I claimed my actions were derived from a historical place of pain, I imbued justice into my new catchphrase: “Luis Suarez can bite me any day.”

But there was a problem with my revenge logic, too: to loosely paraphrase Gandhi, a thigh for a thigh makes the whole world blind. The way I bonded with women over the pecs of the Brazilian National Team was remarkably similar to the thing I’ve spent years scolding men, capitalism, and society for doing. My message — that women are equal, thus have the right to be equally sexual beings— didn’t serve feminism’s greater purpose because I said it in the same language women have been oppressed by. If the ultimate goal of feminism is fairness for all people, I had to treat the hotties like they were people, too.

An objectification-free society is unrealistic (especially with so many shiny new things to objectify), but for me, starting points were everywhere — including my Facebook message. Yesterday, I rerouted our discussion by sending a question about — drumroll, please: shorts in the workplace. It wasn’t the most glamorous topic change, but it was enough to bring us back to the realm of womanhood and professionalism — a place where we could talk at no one else’s expense, and do so for no one but ourselves. As I stifled my yearning for more shirtless Renaldo, I felt a familiar feeling, the same one I get from buying my own drink on a first date: a sense that this is equality, whether I like it or not.

[Image via Getty]