Women’s Objectification in Society 7 page Research

Women Objectification

Women’s Objectification in Society

Women’s Objectification in Society

It is crucial to notice the language we use when we talk about bodies. We speak as if there was one collective perfect body, a singular entity that we’re all after. The trouble is, I think we are after that one body. We grew up with the impression that underneath all this normal flesh, buried deep in the excessive recesses of our healthy bodies, there was a perfect body just waiting to break out. (Hornbacher, 1999, p. 47)

In recent years, much attention from both the public media and professional research community has focused on the growing problem regarding the objectification and sexualisation of women. The American Psychological Association’s (2007) publication outlining the problem has given the public a greater awareness and understanding of the dynamics between our culture’s tendency to objectify women’s bodies and the consequences of this for women and girls. Among these problems include body shame and disordered eating (Calogero, Davis, & Thompson, 2005; Tiggemann & Kuring, 2004), decreased cognitive performance (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998), appearance anxiety and decreased self-esteem (Fea & Brannon, 2006), and depression (Szymanski & Henning, 2007). Recent research has focused on the increasing psychological, social, biological, and developmental impacts objectification has imposed on young females (McKinley, 2006; Szymanski & Henning, 2007; Tylka & Hill, 2004).

Two primary theories have emerged that explain why objectifying messages lead to negative outcomes for women. One of the most empirically supported of these is the socio cultural model, which attributes social and cultural pressures for women to obtain the ideal thin body to the internalization of these messages in women (Cusumano & Thompson, 1997).Objectification theory, however, takes the socio cultural theory a step further and suggests that social and cultural influences contribute both to women’s internalizing objectifying messages and to their use of this value system to monitor and judge their own bodies (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Essentially, women learn to adopt an observer’s perspective of their physical appearance and treat themselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated. Therefore, it is both the socio-cultural influences and the extent to which women take in and apply these messages that leads to negative outcomes.

Socio-cultural Theory

Through messages obtained via media, advertising, and interpersonal interaction, women are socialized to overvalue their external selves (i.e., physical appearance) and to undervalue their internal worth (i.e., personality and intelligence; Stice, Nemeroff, & Shaw, 1996). One of the most salient messages obtained via these avenues is the socio-cultural attitude that equates being thin to physical attractiveness. This is referred to as the thin ideal. Research on the thin ideal has demonstrated the significant role of the media in defining and perpetuating unrealistic body ideals (Levine, Smolak, & Hayden, 1994; Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw, & Stein, 1994).

In addition to being unrealistically thin, images of women’s bodies in the media often depict women as sexual objects (Reichert, 2003). In one analysis of women appearing in advertisements in Time and Vogue from 1955 to 2002, Lindner (2004) reported that an average of 40% of ads featured women merely as decorative objects. In these ads, women were not depicted as being a consumer of or expert on a particular product, but only as a side decoration to Identity & Self-Objectification 3 increase the appeal of the product. They were objects to be looked at, much like the product being advertised. In other advertisements, the focus on women’s bodies or body parts has been so primary that their heads are left out of the image (Unger & Crawford, 1996).

Sexualisation of young girls is ubiquitous in Western society (Merskin, 2004), and has also been linked to internalization of unrealistic body ideals. Cook and Kaiser (2004) argued that girls as young as 12 have been sexualized in media images and advertising since the early 1950s.Often-cited examples include the introduction of pre-teen cosmetics and training bras in the1960s and the famous 1980s advertisement for Calvin Klein Jeans depicting a topless 15-year-oldBrooke Shields. Furthermore, this trend has grown in recent decades (Reichert & Carpenter, 2004) and now includes sexualisation of pre-adolescent images or references (Merskin, 2004).

Cook and Kaiser (2004) pointed out that young girls are often dressed to look older, while older females are dressed to look younger in current advertising trends. They referred to this as the trickle down and trickle up effects, and argued that this practice confuses the distinction between adult and child, especially in regards to sexuality. Other products, such as sexualized cartoon characters and dolls marketed towards pre-adolescent girls also serve to blur this distinction (Lamb & Brown, 2006).

Another important socio-cultural experience that has been shown to contribute to negative objectifying experiences for women is the effect of the male gaze. A study conducted by Calogero (2004) demonstrated that women who merely anticipated an interaction with a man that could involve an evaluative or objectifying gaze experienced significant body shame and social physique anxiety. Furthermore, these effects were not present when the evaluative gaze was anticipated as coming from another woman. This suggests that not only do women internalize Identity & Self-Objectification 4 messages originating from media messages, but socio-cultural factors also generate negative consequences.

Research has indicated, however, that although exposure to media messages and socio cultural factors that exemplify objectification generates negative experiences for young women, it is the internalization of these messages that lead to negative outcomes (Cusumano & Thompson, 1997). For example, individuals who endorse higher internalization of sociocultural ideals of beauty are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptom logy (Stice, 1994; Stice, Agras, & Hammer, 1999; Stormer & Thompson, 1996). Moradi Dirks and Matteson (2005) also showed that internalization of socio-cultural standards of beauty mediated the link between sexual objectification experiences and body shame. Essentially, they proposed that internalization of the ideals that encourage objectification of women play key roles in translating these experiences into negative outcomes.

Objectification Theory

Before discussing these negative outcomes, it is important to note that not all women are subject to these socio cultural attitudes, and the degree to which women are exposed to sexualizing and objectifying material varies. Objectification theory (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996), therefore, has provided some explanation regarding how these socio-cultural influences lead to negative mental health outcomes for women and girls. Frederickson and Roberts (1997) described objectification as a person’s experience of being viewed as a body or collection of body parts valued primarily for its aesthetic appeal. In this sense, a woman’s body is separated from her personal identity and valued only for physical appearance (Bartky, 1990).

The theory suggests that females’ experiences with objectifying messages can lead them to internalization of these ideals. Essentially, the women and girls are socialized to look at their bodies from an observer’s perspective, evaluating their sense of worth based on this framework. This creates an atmosphere that encourages women to view themselves as a body or body parts to be looked at and to base their internal sense of worth on their physical appearance. Frederickson and Roberts (1997) referred to this effect as self-objectification. They argued that self-objectification is a form of imposed self-consciousness that leads to constant self-monitoring and evaluation of physical appearance, which consequently can lead to negative outcomes for women.

One of the most extensively researched outcomes of self-objectification is the development of eating disorder pathology (Monro & Huon, 2006; Stice & Shaw, 1994; Thompson & Heinberg, 1999). Although some research indicates that men are also subject to self-objectification based on exposure to idealized media images (Morry & Staska, 2001), young girls respond significantly more strongly to objectified images of women than boys do to objectified images of men (Murnen, Smolak, Mills, & Good, 2003). Furthermore, the greater, the awareness and internalization of the thin ideal (sociocultural attitude that equates being thin to physical attractiveness), the greater there is likelihood that girls will place value on their physical appearance and attempt to attain the idealized body type. This suggests that young girls are highly susceptible to idealized messages, which has warranted significant research aimed at preventing disordered eating pathology.

In a study comparing self-objectification patterns of adolescent ballet dancers and no dancers, results indicated that self-objectification and self-monitoring strongly correlated with body shame, appearance anxiety, and disordered eating for both dancers and non-dancers (Slater & Tiggemann, 2002). Furthermore, a regression analysis indicated that self-objectification led to self-monitoring, which in turn resulted in the presence of body shame and appearance anxiety. These factors were also linked to disorder eating. To a large extent, researchers were able to demonstrate the outlying consequences of objectification, and showed that all adolescent girls are susceptible to this phenomenon.

A study conducted by Tylka and Hill (2004) concluded with similar results. Researchers found that internalization of the thin-ideal predicted body-surveillance, which in turn predicted body shame. Specifically, women who tend to focus more on how their bodies appear to others rather than on how their bodies feel are more likely to be ashamed of their physical appearance. These findings support objectification theory (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997) in that the process of evaluating one’s internal value based primarily on external appearance leads to negative consequences.

In order to further examine the role of self-objectification on eating disorder pathology, Calogero, Davis, and Thompson (2005) conducted a study with 209 women in a residential treatment facility for eating disorders. They found that exposure to media ideals of appearance alone did not account for eating disorder symptomology, namely drive for thinness. Internalization of these ideals and self-objectification, however, were linked to these factors and was shown to contribute to drive for thinness. This suggests that viewing of sexually objectifying images of women is linked to the internalization of these images, which may contribute to chronic viewing of the self as a sexual object. Although researchers were cautious to declare causality of these factors based on the co relational nature of the data, they suggested that self objectification is present in women with eating disorders, it negatively influences their emotional experiences, and it motivates them to strive for unrealistic cultural body ideals.

Although the development of eating disorders has been a popular topic of research, other negative outcomes associated with objectification have also been explored. Tiggemann and Kuring (2004) showed that self-objectification ultimately led to greater appearance anxiety, which was then linked to depressed mood. Szymanski and Henning (2007) also suggested a link between objectification and depression. They found that self-objectification led to habitual body monitoring, greater body shame, and appearance anxiety. These variables were then linked to depression, as reported on a self-report measure. Sinclair and Myers (2004) demonstrated that college-aged women who rated themselves low on self-objectification had overall better health and wellness. Wellness scores were based on factors such as sense of control, humor, stress management, self-worth, gender identity, friendships, and self-care. Results indicated that body surveillance and body shame were negatively related to overall wellness. Sinclair and Myers suggested that difficulty achieving cultural body standards may be a risk factor for holistic human functioning and may lead to impairment in multiple life tasks, such as forming meaningful interpersonal relationships and academic success.

Academic and cognitive performance may also be affected by body consciousness caused by objectification (Fredrickson et al., 1998). Researchers conducted a study in which female participants were asked to complete math-related tasks while either trying on a sweater or a swimsuit. Although there were no observers present, participants who tried on swimwear reported significantly higher experiences of body shame and “disgust.” Furthermore, they performed significantly lower on math tasks than did women who were wearing sweaters, suggesting that objectification consumes mental energy needed to perform academic functions. Furthermore, after being removed from situations that produce high objectification experiences, women tend to continue focusing on how their bodies look and how others may have evaluated them (Quinn, Kallen, & Cathey, 2006). This suggests that women internalize these experiences and continually evaluate themselves based on the emotional and cognitive response they evoke.


Previous research has demonstrated the pervasive presence of unrealistic beauty ideals in Western culture (Reichert, 2003). Self-objectification has been shown to be prevalent among women (McKinley, 2006), girls (Hirschman et al. 2006), females with eating disorders (Calogeroet al. 2005), dancers, non-dancers (Slater & Tiggemann, 2002), and across cultural groups (Hebl, Identity & Self-Objectification 22 King, & Lin, 2004). It is understandable, therefore, that even identity achievement would not serve as a protective factor against the effects of objectification. However, although identity achieved women did not endorse a decrease likelihood of internalization or self-objectification, they did endorse higher pressure from socio cultural sources. Essentially, these women are aware of the pressure they feel to obtain ideal beauty standards, but this did not increase the likelihood that they would internalize this message or self-objectify


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