We Objectify Ourselves for Approval

Hannah Anderson
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In the age of selfies and social media, one of the most common ways that we pursue personal honor or relevance is by projecting a persona that appeals to our particular community. In itself, this “image crafting” is not new, but the digital age facilitates it in a way that previous eras didn’t. When communities are primarily comprised of people who share physical space with each other, it is hard to control what people see of us. We can try to maintain a certain image—the plastered smile, the well-regulated children, the forced familiarities and compliments—but the possibility of being caught off guard is very real.

In digital communities, however, we choose when and how to interact with each other. With a few clicks, a snap, and a swipe, we can manage what other people see; if we guard our image carefully enough, we can cover our flaws and accentuate our assets. We are not lying about our lives so much as editing them to present only what aligns with the preferences of our audience.

“The main reason we participate in our own objectification is because it rewards us.”

Image crafting takes as many forms as there are audiences to perform for. In spaces that honor academic achievement, we’ll make sure that our social media handle includes the appropriate letters after our name. (In places that reward marriage and family, we’ll make sure to include the appropriate letters before our name.) For contexts that value introspection and spirituality, we’ll post pictures of an open Bible and cup of coffee. And in an ironic twist, for contexts that honor transparency, we can even begin to perform at authenticity itself. Because transparency is rare in an age of image crafting, it’s also valuable, and exposing our unfiltered self can become a way to seek approval. To signal how little we care about what people think of us, we will parade our faults. We’ll storm and swear and delight in disrupting established norms—all while performing to audience expectations.

The main reason we participate in our own objectification is because it rewards us. Each like, each positive comment, each retweet and share confirms that we are valuable and worthy of honor. But the opposite is also true. As much as we enjoy positive feedback, think how quickly and radically your emotions shift when someone responds with a rude or negative comment. For some of us, it makes us want to get off social media entirely; for others it draws us deeper into it, causing us to fixate on having the final word. We feel embarrassed, confused, hurt, and even angry.

Why does it bother us so much? Why does someone that we may not even know have so much power over us? Why can’t we, despite our best intentions, just walk away?

Part of what we’re experiencing is the weight of public shame. As much as social media has given us the ability to gain approval from hundreds of people, it also provides opportunity for us to be embarrassed in front of hundreds of people. It’s not that one person has rejected us; it’s that they’ve rejected us in front of everyone else. And should they be able to sway public opinion against us, we face the real possibility of being ostracized. We face the very real possibility of being sent out with the trash.

That’s why it’s so important to find our source of honor and value in something other than people’s opinion—to seek what is truly honorable. If we don’t, our decision making will be skewed by a constant attempt to perform for them. Instead of having the clarity to weigh whether something is truly good, we’ll focus instead on whether other people perceive it to be good. Instead of asking, “Is this good?” we’ll ask:

What will other people think of me if I do this?
What will they say when they find out I went there? How does sharing this article or product reflect on me? Will he be upset if I say I don’t agree with him?
Will she be upset if I do?

And just like the Pharisees, we very quickly begin to make our choices about what is good to be seen by others.

For Further Reading:

All That’s Good

by Hannah Anderson

Winner of the 2018 TGC Book Award for Christian Living “And God saw that it was good…” Look out over the world today, it seems a far cry...

book cover for All That’s Good