Self-Objectification and Sport

In  their  seminal  article,  Barbara  Fredrickson  and Tomi-Ann  Roberts  posited  that  gender  socialization and contextual experiences predispose individuals to internalize cultural standards shaping how meaning is ascribed to one’s body. Rooted in sociocultural approaches to the psychology of women, self-objectification  is  the  tendency  to  introject  an external observer’s perspective on one’s body, evaluating  it  in  terms  of  its  value  and  attractiveness to  others  rather  than  its  value  and  function  (i.e., what  it  can  do).  With  the  adoption  of  an  external perspective, the individual’s body is reduced to instrumental status, which serves as one’s primary view  of  the  physical  self.  Most  prevalent  in  adolescence and young adulthood, self-objectification and its theorized consequences may compete with the experience of sport and exercise with implications for psychological health and behavior.

Measuring Self-Objectification

Measurement issues are at the forefront of advancing our understanding of the process of, and consequences from, perceptions of self-objectification. While  believed  to  be  a  chronic  (i.e.,  trait-like) propensity  to  adopt  an  observer’s  view  of  the self,  certain  contexts  or  stimuli  (e.g.,  viewing  fitness models, training in form-fitting clothing) may prime  perceptions  and  behaviors  consistent  with an objectified state of awareness. When measured at  a  trait-level,  two  instruments  have  dominated the  literature.  First,  Stephanie  Noll  and  Barbara Fredrickson  developed  the  Self-Objectification Questionnaire   to   assess   the   extent   to   which respondents  value  observable  appearance-based body  attributes  (e.g.,  physical  attractiveness,  firm musculature)  to  be  more  important  than  nonobservable  competence-based  features  (e.g.,  health, strength)  for  how  the  physical  self  is  evaluated. Second, the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale, developed  by  Nita  McKinley  and  Janet  Hyde, assesses three components (i.e., body shame, body control,  and  body  surveillance)  believed  to  represent  the  degree  to  which  perceptions  of  external observers are internalized. With all three subscales relevant, the eight-item body-surveillance subscale of  the  Objectified  Body  Consciousness  Scale  has most frequently served as a proxy measure of self-objectification. The body surveillance subscale was designed to assess the extent to which an individual views his or her body in terms of its appearance.

Self-objectification can also be induced through experimental   manipulation.   Situational   self-objectification may be triggered through exposure to objectified visual images, language (e.g., beauty advice  columns),  interactions  with  strangers,  and being  in  situations  where  physique  salience  is emphasized such as exercising in a mirrored environment. Following the chosen manipulation, participants  are  generally  asked  to  complete  survey instruments or perform a task to assess the impact of  the  triggering  manipulation.  Feelings  elicited through  exposure  to  objectifying  situations  have been  found  to  persist  beyond  the  manipulation, attesting to its somewhat enduring nature.

Self-Objectification in Sport and Exercise Contexts

Engagement  in  physical  activity  (PA)  has  been advocated  as  one  strategy  to  offset  the  deleterious  effects  of  objectification  given  its  focus  on body competence. The inherent challenges embedded  in  the  sport  and  exercise  environment  may assist  active  individuals  to  view  their  bodies  for how  they  feel  and  function  as  opposed  to  how they  look.  Though  intuitively  appealing,  research addressing  this  issue  is  relatively  nascent,  with non-experimental  research  equivocal  in  young adult female exercisers or adolescent athletes when compared  with  nonactive  cohorts.  Behavioral implications  from  cross-sectional  research  have been noted: for example, women scoring higher in trait self-objectification report engaging in less PA. Specifically, individuals who tend to objectify their bodies  endorse  reasons  for  exercise  aligned  with appearance  more  strongly  than  motives  linked  to enjoyment  or  health,  thus  reducing  sustained  PA engagement.  Extending  to  intervention  studies, Emily  Impett  and  colleagues  found  that  engagement  in  a  2-month  yoga  program  was  associated with  reductions  in  self-objectification  for  adult women exercisers. While findings were based on a single group design and small sample, the focus on internal  awareness  that  embodies  yoga  participation  may  be  one  strategy  to  prevent  the  development of a sense of self that is object-oriented.

Characteristics of the PA environment have been considered in an attempt to further enhance understanding of the contextual influences underpinning self-objectification.  Participation  in  certain  activities  (i.e.,  aesthetic  sports,  aerobic  activities)  may predispose  individuals  to  experience  greater  self-objectification than engagement in activities where physical appearance is less salient to performance. Features  of  the  exercise  environment  including preferences  for  positioning  in  an  aerobics  studio,  exercising  outdoors,  and  attire  of  physically active women have also been associated with self-objectification.  With  the  understanding  that  the cues  in  the  PA  environment  may  trigger  feelings of  self-objectification,  practitioners  should  examine  ways  of  tailoring  the  exercise  environment  to minimize  these  concerns.  These  environmental manipulations  may  be  particularly  important  for the  individual  who  is  predisposed  to  view  his  or her body in an objectified manner.

Consequences of Self-Objectification in Physical Activity Contexts

Emotional Consequences

Beyond  the  social  contextual  processes  leading to feelings of objectification, researchers have investigated  the  consequences  of  viewing  oneself as  an  object.  The  internalization  of  an  observer’s perspective   is   associated   with   increased   self-consciousness,  habitual  body  monitoring  and lowered  personal  agency.  Emotional  experiences most commonly liked with self-objectification are perceptions of appearance anxiety stemming from fear about when and how one’s body will be evaluated. Body-related shame has also been identified as  a  salient  consequence  that  occurs  when  the body  is  evaluated  as  inadequate  when  compared against  the  internalized  standard.  Shrouded  with implications  including  a  lack  of  self-control  and failure to meet social expectations, the individual who  experiences  body-related  shame  attributes shortcomings  to  the  core  self.  Body-related  guilt resulting  from  the  appraisal  that  one’s  actions  or behaviors are wrong has recently been advanced as a consequence of self-objectification. For example, restrained  eating  or  excessive  exercise  engaged  in to  improve  appearance  may  render  an  individual feeling body-related guilt as a consequence of these actions.  The  postulated  relationships  between self-objectification  and  appearance  anxiety  and body-related  shame  have  been  consistently  demonstrated in athletes and exercisers. The extent to which other self-conscious emotions such as body related  guilt  is  associated  with  self-objectification needs to be explored in physically active samples.

While  originally  grounded  in  the  experiences of  women,  the  emotional  consequences  of  self-objectification in physically active men should not be  ignored.  Findings  linking  self-objectification  to measures  of  body-related  emotions  in  males  are less consistent than those demonstrated in females. The  noted  variation  between  self-objectification and  body-related  emotions  underscores  the  inherent  complexity  of  examining  self-objectification in   males.   Disproportionate   exposure   to   self objectifying  situations  in  comparison  to  females may account for these findings. Measurement issues may also be implicated as existing instruments and manipulations  may  be  less  powerful  triggers  of body objectification in males than females.

Mental Health Consequences

The  experience  of  self-objectification,  whether it be acculturated or primed by contextual cues, is posited to play a role in an array of mental health concerns  that  disproportionately  affect  women (e.g., eating disorders, depression) and diminished well-being.  In  physically  active  samples,  greater self-objectification  has  been  directly  linked  with increased  eating  disorder  symptomatology,  with body-related  shame  identified  as  one  mechanism underpinning  the  relationship.  Consideration  of the  mental  health  risks  of  self-objectification  in athletes  and  exercisers  beyond  eating-disordered symptomatology   has   received   minimal   attention.  This  is  despite  consistent  associations  noted between  self-objectification  and  increased  depressive symptomatology in nonactive samples. As PA is often advanced as adjuvant treatment for mental health  concerns  including  depression,  the  role  of self-objectification  in  inhibiting  effective  treatment  serves  as  one  area  for  future  investigation. Self-esteem  has  been  identified  as  one  plausible buffering agent to reduce the deleterious effects of self-objectification  on  measures  of  mental  health. Consequently, greater self-esteem appears to serve as one protective mechanism minimizing the negative effects of self-objectifying experiences in comparison with those lower in self-esteem.

Motivational and Behavioral Consequences

Adopting  a  third-person  perspective  as  one’s sense  of  self  has  been  theorized  to  limit  mental resources  as  attention  is  divided  between  appearance  and  performance.  As  a  consequence,  self-objectification has been implicated in the reduction of peak motivational states or flow (i.e., a state of being fully absorbed) when engaged in demanding activities.  Cognitive  disruptions  linked  to  perceptions  of  self-objectification  hold  implications  for the fulfillment of one’s potential in sport and exercise contexts. Given the salience of motivation to sustained  engagement  and  psychological  health, it  is  surprising  that  the  motivational  implications of self-objectification have received little attention when  compared  to  emotional  and  mental  health outcomes.  The  few  investigations  examining  the theorized  relationship  between  self-objectification and  flow  has  demonstrated  trends  suggestive  of the implied in samples of physical active females or former dancers.

In  addition  to  interfering  with  cognitive  performance,  self-objectification  may  also  serve  to hinder  physical  performance  as  a  consequence  of the  fractionation  of  mental  capacity.  In  the  one study  examining  the  previously  given  contention, Barbara  Fredrickson  and  Kristen  Harrison  examined  the  effect  of  self-objectification  on  physical performance  in  a  throwing  task  in  adolescent females.  Girls  who  self-objectified  to  a  greater degree demonstrated lower throwing performance than  those  with  fewer  tendencies  to  objectify. This  held  even  after  controlling  for  age,  ethnicity,  and  prior  throwing  experience,  which  speaks to  the  potential  implications  for  performance  of individuals with a propensity to internalize others’ perceptions of their bodies.

Conclusion

Since   its   introduction   to   the   literature,   self-objectification  and  its  postulated  consequences have  received  considerable  empirical  attention with  implications  for  emotional,  psychological, and  physical  development  generally  supported. While  engaging  in  sport  and  exercise  has  been advanced as one strategy to combat the deleterious effects of self-objectification, such conclusions cannot be firmly advanced given the current state of knowledge. In an effort to more fully understand self-objectification in sport and exercise, it may be prudent  to  move  beyond  cross-sectional  research to consider the processes through which individuals  internalize  others’  (e.g.,  coaches)  standards for appearance and potential strategies to combat their influence. Although speculative, these strategies may include self-regulatory strategies, a focus on the physical self of how the body performs as opposed  to  looks,  and  strategies  to  increase  self-esteem.

References:

  1. Fredrickson, B., & Roberts, T.-A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206.
  2. Greenleaf, C., & McGreer, R. (2006). Disordered eating attitudes and self-objectification among physically active and sedentary female college students. Journal of Psychology, 140, 187–198.
  3. Impett, E. A., Daubenmier, J. J., & Hirschman, A. L. (2006). Minding the body: Yoga, embodiment, and well-being. Sexuality and Social Policy, 3, 39–48.
  4. Melbye, L., Tenenbaum, G., & Eklund, R. (2007). Self-objectification and exercise behaviors: The mediating role of social physique anxiety. Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, 12, 196–220.
  1. Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness centre environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 9, 855–866.
  2. Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., Ntoumanis, N., Cumming, J., Bartholomew, K. J., & Pearce, G. (2011). Can self-esteem protect against the deleterious consequences of self-objectification for mood and body satisfaction in physically active female university students. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 289–307.

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