I recently had the opportunity to take my one and a half year old son out for the day. On a rainy, cold afternoon, the mall was my best bet. He had a field day strutting about the stores, and especially loved the life-sized, pink polka-dotted dog at a particular women’s lingerie store. While he gingerly pet the play pooch, I looked up to a huge poster outside the store. It had a scantily clad model on it with the caption Made You Look.
Well, it certainly did make me look–just like everyone else who passed the store. It was hard not to, considering the poster was at least six feet tall; the woman pictured left little to the imagination. More than the photo, though, the caption stuck with me: Made You Look.
I suppose that’s the purpose of any advertisement: to make you look at the ad, and maybe visit the store. However, were we meant to be looking at a product in this advertisement? It would seem not, because what made us look was the image of a scantily clad woman. She was the product, and that made me angry.
How could this borderline pornographic image be right here in the mall? Who said this was OK? There were so many people looking at this image, and it upset me. Then I thought to myself, That’s what people are doing: Looking. There were hundreds of people looking at this woman. It caused me to wonder–who really saw her?
This is often said to be the problem with immodesty or pornography– not that it shows too much of a person, but too little.
What does an image like this say to people who look? It tells women, This is what you want–to look like this. Here’s where you can get it. It says to men, This is what you want. To have this. Here’s where you can get it. Ads like this–and others focusing entirely on a person’s body–reduce it to a mere object. Some go so far as to crop out the face, further conditioning us to look at the body as a thing. This ad made a woman something to be looked at for a moment, then forgotten.
In the middle of this, I thought of my son–How could I keep him from seeing something like this? How could I shield him from violent, pornographic, vulgar, or hurtful images? Could I keep him from the malls? The billboards? The internet ads? The video games? What could I do to protect him?
I looked down at my little boy, petting this toy dog so carefully and gently–then it hit me. It caught his eye when he looked at it, but what really mattered was how he saw it afterward. In his imagination it was a living creature, and he treated it with love and care–as a one and half year old can have. It was beautiful.
In that moment I realized the painful truth: I will never be able to shield his eyes from the pain of this world. I won’t be able to keep him from seeing violence, injustice, objectification, and exploitation. What I can do is teach him not to look, but to see–and remember there is person behind these images. I can teach him to find the dignity and worth of each person, where nobody else recognizes it. I can teach him to treat those people like he treated the toy dog — with care, respect, and love.
Pope Francis said, “Things have a price and can be for sale, but people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things.” This is a truth that, when we see it, can change how we look at ourselves and each other forever.