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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.