Objectification Theory Definition
Objectification theory is a framework for understanding the experience of being female in a culture that sexually objectifies the female body. The theory proposes that girls and women, more so than boys and men, are socialized to internalize an observer’s perspective as their primary view of their physical selves. This perspective is referred to as self-objectification, which leads many girls and women to habitually monitor their bodies’ outward appearance. This, in turn, leads to increased feelings of shame, anxiety, and disgust toward the self, reduces opportunities for peak motivational states, and diminishes awareness of internal bodily states. Accumulations of these experiences help account for a variety of mental health risks that disproportionately affect women: depression, eating disorders, and sexual dysfunction. The theory also helps illuminate why changes in these mental health risks occur alongside life-course changes in the female body, emerging at puberty and diminishing after menopause.
Objectification Theory Background and History
At the beginning of the 20th century, American psychologists explored the notion of the looking-glass self, which says that a person’s sense of self is a social construction and reflects how others view him or her. This perspective is a precursor to objectification theory, which takes the looking glass, or mirror, component of this metaphor quite literally. The field’s earlier notions of self disregarded the physical body as an important component of self-concept and focused almost exclusively on attitudes, values, motivations, and the like. However, studies show that for women, positive self-regard hinges on perceived physical attractiveness, whereas for men, it hinges on physical effectiveness. So objectification theory asks, what would a more embodied view of the self tell us about gender differences in mental health?
Feminist theorists have pointed a finger at Western culture’s sexually objectifying treatment of women’s bodies for a long time. Psychologist Karen Horney wrote, 75 years ago, about the socially sanctioned right of all males to sexualize all females, regardless of age or status. More recently, Sandra Bartky defined sexual objectification as occurring whenever a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her. Furthermore, the notion that within this cultural milieu women can adopt an outside-in perspective on their own bodies has a fairly long history in feminist philosophy. Simone de Beauvoir argued that when a girl becomes a woman, she becomes doubled; so instead of existing only within herself, she also exists outside herself. The art historian John Berger showed that women become their own first surveyors as a way of anticipating their treatment in the world.
Objectification theory argues that, with the sexualization of the female body as the cultural milieu in which girls are raised, girls are socialized to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance. The external pressures that encourage girls’ own preoccupation with their physical appearances abound. Empirical evidence demonstrates that sexy, eye-catching women receive massive rewards in American culture. For example, compared with average weight or thin girls, heavier girls are less likely to be accepted to college. Physical attractiveness also correlates more highly with popularity, dating experience, and even marriage opportunities for girls and women than for men. It is as if physical beauty translates to power for girls and women. So, what Sigmund Freud called vanity in women, objectification theory explores as a survival strategy in a sexually objectifying culture; a survival strategy that may bring immediate rewards, but carries significant psychological and health consequences.
Importance and Consequences of Self-Objectification
Self-objectification functions as both a trait and a state. That is, some people are simply more likely to define themselves in ways that highlight a third person’s, or observer’s view, of their bodies. These people are high self-objectifiers. Studies show that, in general, women score higher than men in trait self-objectification. Situations can also call attention to the body as observed by others, and this is when self-objectification is a state. Imagine receiving a catcall or whistle while jogging.
A great deal of research has been conducted on the theorized consequences of self-objectification. The first, and perhaps most insidious, consequence of self-objectification is that it fragments consciousness. The chronic attention to physical appearance that girls and women can engage in leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental activities. One study demonstrated this fragmenting quite vividly. In it, college students were asked to try on and evaluate, alone in a dressing room, either a swimsuit or a sweater. While they waited for 10 minutes in the garment, they completed a math test. The results revealed that young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters. No differences were found for the young men. In other words, thinking about the body, comparing it with sexualized cultural ideals, disrupts women’s mental capacity.
Other work has demonstrated physical as well as mental capacity can be disrupted by self-objectification. One study showed girls whose bodily self-concepts were more appearance-oriented threw a softball with a less-effective shoulder and humerus swing than did girls with a more competence-based view of their bodily selves. The widely scorned phenomenon of “throwing like a girl,” in other words, might better be phrased, “throwing like a self-objectified person.”
Studies show that the constant monitoring of appearance that accompanies self-objectification leads to increased feelings of shame and anxiety about one’s body. Shame is an emotion that occurs when one perceives one’s failure to meet cultural standards of conduct. The chronic comparison of one’s own body with the impossible cultural standards of attractive, sexy appearance is a recipe for shame. Most girls and women can never win. Numerous studies have shown stronger body shame, appearance anxiety, and feelings of self-disgust in young women who internalize a sexualized view of self, and also in young women after viewing media portrayals of idealized women’s bodies, or even being exposed to sexualizing words that commonly appear on magazine covers such as sexy or shapely.
These cognitive and emotional consequences can compound to create even more profound mental health risks. Studies have demonstrated a link between the feelings of shame engendered by self-objectification and eating disorders as well as depression in women. Other work has explored the ways in which the mental preoccupation of self-objectification diminishes women’s Bow, or ability to fully absorb themselves in enjoyable activities, and their sexual satisfaction.
Janet Shibley Hyde recently conducted a massive exploration of gender differences in psychological traits and attitudes. She found that there are actually very few such differences, despite the media’s emphasis on women and men being from entirely different planets. Men and women are far more alike than different. Self-objectification appears to be one exceptional area. Here researchers do find significant and important differences between men and women. The work of objectification theory helps researchers see the ways that the cultural milieu of sexual objectification diminishes girls’ and women’s well-being, and limits their potential.
- Berger, J. (1973). Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.
- Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T.-A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.
- Fredrickson, B. L., Roberts, T.-A., Noll, S. M., Quinn, D. M., & Twenge, J. M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 269-284.
- McKinley, N. M., & Hyde, J. S. (1996). The objectified body consciousness scale. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 181-215.