Power and Prejudice

Scientific perspectives on power, subtle prejudice, and discrimination

My Eyes Are Up Here

Eye tracking reveals that men and women exhibit the objectifying gaze

Eye tracking and the objectifying gaze
Photo Credit: Craig Chandler UNL Communications
Craig Chandler UNL Communications
Are you are tired of getting the “once over” when you are walking down the street, on the job, or at the grocery store? Have you considered buying one of those t-shirts with “my eyes are up here” plastered over the bust? If so, you are not alone.

In recent interviews promoting her new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard President, Debora Spar offered an explanation on why she sought breast reduction surgery in her 20’s. During her professional interactions, instead of focusing on her face and what she was saying, she noticed other people focusing a little lower on her body. She believed that this focus on her breasts would be a significant impediment to her career. Although some might consider surgery an extreme measure to avoid being objectified, recent research using eye tracking technology suggests that women have reason to be concerned.

In a study that I published in Sex Roles with Arianne Holland and Dr. Michael Dodd at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, we examined predictors of the objectifying gaze. Yes, that’s right, we scientifically examined “ogling.”

Technological advances made it possible to carefully document the objectifying gaze through eye tracking—a device that can be used to monitor people’s eye movements as they look at women—how long they look, how often they return their gaze to, and where they first look. 

In the study, we asked a small sample of undergraduate men and women to look at women’s bodies with one of two goals: to evaluate their appearance or their personality. We also modified the women’s bodies so that we had a range of shapes with some representing cultural ideals of beauty—having hourglass figures with larger breasts and smaller waists—and some that did not. Instead of including models or actors (think Kim Kardashian or Sofia Vergara) we used pictures of everyday college women with similar dress and neutral expressions.

Monitoring their roving eyes with the eye tracker, we found some of the first evidence mapping onto women’s accounts of objectification. When people were appearance focused, they tended to focus more on women’s bodies than when they were personality focused. Similarly, focusing on appearance (vs. personality) contributed to less attention to the faces. People were also particularly likely to dwell on the bodies of women with hourglass shaped figures.

Now before you chalk this study up to “common sense,” let me highlight a few surprising discoveries from the study that paint a more optimistic picture of objectification.

Overall, people focused on women’s faces more than their bodies and focusing people’s attention on the personalities of women further reduced the objectifying gaze.

Unlike popular accounts of the objectifying gaze, men were not completely to blame. In this study, both men and women gazed at women’s bodies for longer periods of time and their faces less when their goal was to evaluate women’s appearances.

However, compared to women participants, men did show an increased tendency to more quickly first fixate on women’s bodies. Men also provided more positive personality evaluations of hourglass shaped women whereas women’s personality ratings did not depend on whether the bodies were attractive or not.

Although this is an initial study that needs to be replicated with larger and more diverse samples, this work offers some important glimpses into when people exhibit the objectifying gaze and what it looks like. We also know from other research that a focus on the body is associated with less perceived intelligence and competence (Loughnan et al., 2010; Heflick & Goldenberg, 2009) and more aggressive behaviors (Gervais, DiLillo, & McChargue, 2013) toward women.

Consistent with Spar’s accounts, objectifying gazes communicate to women that they are being seen as sex objects rather than people (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Not surprisingly, the objectifying gaze has several negative consequences for women such as making them anxious about their appearance (Calogero, 2004), decreasing their work performance (Gervais, Vescio, & Allen, 2011), and making them feel like they should speak up less (Saguy, Quinn, Dovidio, & Pratto, 2010).

So, all you guys and gals out there, if you notice your eyes meandering to places they shouldn’t be, remind yourself that you are interacting with another human being with a personality and hopefully your roving eyes will follow suit. 

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social-law psychologist at the University of Nebraska.

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