Daily BulletinDaily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by Peter Koval, Academic, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne

How does a woman feel when a man wolf-whistles at her from across the street? Or when a male coworker gives her body a fleeting once-over before looking her in the eye?

These examples may seem relatively innocent to some, but our research has found they can have negative consequences for women’s emotional well-being.

We asked women to record any incidents of sexual objectification on a smartphone app, alongside rating their feelings several times each day for a week.

When women experienced sexual objectification, in many cases it led them to scrutinise their physical appearance, which negatively impacted their emotional well-being.

Read more: Hey, sexy: objectifying catcalls occur more frequently than you might think

A cycle of objectification

The process by which sexual objectification is psychologically harmful to women was first described by psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in the mid-1990s.

According to this theory, when women are treated as objects, they momentarily view their own bodies from the perspective of the person objectifying them. In turn, they become preoccupied with their physical appearance and sexual value to others.

This process of “self-objectification” leads women to experience unpleasant feelings such as shame and anxiety. If repeated, it can eventually lead to long-term psychological harm.

Despite hundreds of studies on the psychology of sexual objectification, convincing evidence of the process described by Fredrickson and Roberts has been lacking until now.

Read more: Explainer: what does the 'male gaze' mean, and what about a female gaze?

We believe our research, conducted with colleagues in the United States, is the first to demonstrate that when women are exposed to sexually objectifying events in their everyday lives, they become more preoccupied with their physical appearance.

This, in turn, leads to increased negative emotions like anxiety, anger, embarrassment and shame.

Our research

We asked 268 women aged 18 to 46 in Melbourne and St Louis (in the US) to install an app on their smartphones.

Several times each day, the app prompted them to rate their emotions, how preoccupied they were with their physical appearance (a measure of self-objectification), and whether they had recently been targeted by sexually objectifying behaviour – or had witnessed such treatment of other women.

Using smartphones to track women’s everyday experiences of sexual objectification has several advantages over other approaches used in most previous objectification research.

Sexually objectifying women leads women to objectify themselves, and harms emotional well-being We asked women to document any incidents of sexual objectification in a smartphone app over a week. From shutterstock.com

First, we can be sure we captured “real world” examples of sexual objectification rather than artificial scenarios that may not represent life outside the lab.

Second, instead of relying on potentially unreliable memories of past events and feelings recorded in surveys or journals, by using frequent smartphone surveys we could gather more accurate “real time” reports of sexual objectification.

Finally, repeatedly sampling women’s daily experiences enabled us to observe the psychological processes triggered by sexual objectification.

Read more: Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment: what’s the difference?

What we found

More than 65% of women in our study were personally targeted by sexually objectifying behaviour at least once during the monitoring period. This might have included being ogled, catcalled or whistled at.

Our findings were consistent with Fredrickson and Roberts’s theory: women reported being preoccupied with their physical appearance roughly 40% more when they had recently been targeted by sexually objectifying behaviours, compared to when they had not.

Importantly, these momentary spikes in self-objectification predicted subsequent increases in women’s negative emotions, particularly feelings of shame and embarrassment.

Although these increases were small, they were reliable, and appear to be indirectly caused by exposure to sexually objectifying behaviours.

Sexually objectifying women leads women to objectify themselves, and harms emotional well-being Women in our study were affected by witnessing incidents of sexual harassment, as well as experiencing it them themselves. From shutterstock.com

Women may think about their appearance independent of experiencing sexual objectification. Interestingly, we found when women self-objectified, they sometimes reported feeling slightly happier and more confident.

So when women think about themselves in an objectified manner, they can feel both positive and negative emotions. But self-objectification that arises as a result of being objectified by someone else appears to have an exclusively negative impact on emotions.

Read more: Women can build positive body image by controlling what they view on social media

It’s important to note that in our results, experiencing sexual objectification on its own didn’t directly lead to increases in women’s negative feelings. Rather, the harmful effects of sexual objectification occurred when it resulted in women objectifying themselves.

Seeing other women objectified

Our participants reported witnessing the objectification of other women on average four times during the week-long study period.

Witnessing the objectification of other women was also followed by reliable (albeit weaker) increases in self-objectification, with similar negative downstream consequences for emotional well-being.

Just as passive smoking is harmful to non-smokers, second-hand exposure to sexual objectification may reduce the emotional well-being of women, even if they are rarely or never objectified themselves.

Read more: Universities unveil plan to reduce sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus

Overall, our study confirms previous research showing sexual objectification of women remains relatively common.

But importantly, we’ve shown these everyday objectifying experiences are not as innocuous as they may seem. Though subtle, the indirect emotional effects of objectifying treatment may accumulate over time into more serious psychological harm for women.

This article is a co-publication with Pursuit.

Authors: Peter Koval, Academic, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne

Read more http://theconversation.com/sexually-objectifying-women-leads-women-to-objectify-themselves-and-harms-emotional-well-being-120762

These historic grasslands are becoming a weed-choked waste. It could be one of the world's great parks


'No one would even know if I had died in my room': coronavirus leaves international students in dire straits


The Conversation


Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Scott Morrison: the right man at the right time

Australia is not at war with another nation or ideology in August 2020 but the nation is in conflict. There are serious threats from China and there are many challenges flowing from the pandemic tha...

Greg Rogers - avatar Greg Rogers

Prime Minister National Cabinet Statement

The National Cabinet met today to discuss Australia’s COVID-19 response, the Victoria outbreak, easing restrictions, helping Australians prepare to go back to work in a COVID-safe environment an...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Link Building Secrets - Comprehensive Guide

Link building has proven to be an effective approach when it comes to promoting your online website. Let's analyze the topic of developing an effective link building strategy for site promotion ...

Julia Smith - avatar Julia Smith

What to Expect from Your NDIS Verification & Certification Audit

The National Disability Insurance Agency administers NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) in Australia. The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission governs it. As a welfare support scheme of...

Sarah Williams - avatar Sarah Williams

Why You May Need A Tower Scaffold Hire

When constructing a building, or even a multilevel structure, you must use a tower scaffold to get you into position. What is unique about this type of scaffolding is that you can build it highe...

News Company - avatar News Company

News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion