“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
“Do you think that you’re the only one who deals with this?” my therapist asked me incredulously at a recent session.
We were discussing the nature of “objectification”—in this case, meaning a person’s value coming only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics. I left wondering about my own acts of objectification and additionally curious as to where and how that process might have begun.
It wasn’t until my freshman year at university that I saw–for the very first time and on opposite pages of my Biology One book—photographs of both a man and a woman, completely nude; fully frontally nude and available for my leisured, late night dorm room viewing. Bear in mind, I went to a fairly cloistered Catholic university in the early 70s, so the presence of these latter day Adam and Eves was especially mind blowing.
Ohhh, you Catholics…
I am an only child, was something of a loner, and have never had much sense of inhabiting my own body, perhaps owing to the fact that I was somewhat overweight early in life; I tend to cling more to the edges of my body’s outline. Other than my very rushed and blushing glances at boys in the showers during gym in high school, I had no references from which to imagine how other men were put together.
As diversified as many of my interests were as a youngster, I clearly had some big blanks in my education; and no, I wasn’t brought up on the moon. I was raised in what was then a farm town in California. The 60s were a different time; it was a good time in many ways, and had an innocence (clearly!) that is overlooked now as those decades often are held up to ridicule and made a cynosure of bigotry and misogyny.
Libraries in our orchards favored Ansel Adams over Man Ray. Books on human reproduction provided boring, technical sketches. I was unaware of the existence of pornography, or better put, MY pornography existed in Fruit of the Loom underwear ads (boxers or conservative briefs) or Olympic swimmers sporting their Speedoes.
Oh, I had seen the occasional Vargas painting in some other Dads’ workshops or Playboys stowed away under the bed of a friend’s parent. My Dad had neither. And there was no cyber world! The body imagery that existed in my mind and in my dreams was as a blur of limbs, exchangeable faces and tight clothing, imagery all pushed down that much deeper as I wrestled with the facets of my own burgeoning puberty.
So it might be easier to imagine that my copy of that biology book became my go-to for some much needed insight. When I stumbled upon it recently on bookshelves at my folks’ home and opened to those photos, I felt like I was seeing old lovers. And the two of them weren’t, I’m sorry to say, “All that!” But they were naked. And that alone, in those days, quite literally took my breath away.
I’d guess that I had begun to objectify the human form from that time. As it gradually dawned on me (at somewhat of a glacial pace,) that I identified as more gay than straight, my objectification of the male body was well under way.
“Objectification” has become, for many of us, as forbidden as usage of the “N” word. Yet “objectification” possesses other, more positive possibilities. Really, where would we be without the ability to objectify? To see. To access. To judge. There is a kind of objectification in all seeing; “objectifying” is literally the expressing of something abstract (a thought or an emotion) in a more concrete way (a composition, book, poem, a piece of architecture, a dance.)
I suppose it’s another example of certain words being overcome by their negative “dark” sides. “Opportunitistic,” for example, carries the nasty weight of microbes, disease, and greed. And yet, minus that onus, someone who is lucky enough to be “opportunistic” is simply a person who takes advantage of the moment when good things present themselves. That sounds very Zen-like to me and quite smart.
Perhaps I can blame that college biology book for prying apart my id from my ego; perhaps staring at those two pictures was the start for me of creating a later difficulty in seeing past the physical in order to embrace a deeper, more soulful source of true beauty. And yet, I wonder, did that same mental muscle also help me to aspire to grasp meaning in the “abstract-made-concrete,” the artistic act of objectification? Hard to say.
The journey continues; each day I have a new opportunity to see whether my “objectifications” are holding me back in a trance inspired by disembodied breasts, pectorals and curve clinging denim; or has it nudged me forward towards a revelation of some deeper seeing, uncovering a finer understanding of myself ?