Top 25: December 2013

Check out our top posts of the month, including: How to improve yourself (for real) this new year, how we think about charity, and the greatest invention of all time.

Your Body on Display: Social Media and Your Self-Image

Social media’s effect on your bodily attitudes can harm your mental health.

Sharing pictures of yourself in various stages of dress, or undress, can result in significant threats to your future relationship and career opportunities, as we know from studies of Facebook exhibitionism. Apart from the potential detriment caused by showing your rowdy, party-animal, side, placing undue focus on your appearance may also threaten the health of your bodily self-image.

To understand why, we need to take a look at the process of "objectification." In psychology, this term refers to a tendency to treat an individual not as a person with emotions and thoughts, but as a physical being or “object.” In most cases, the term means thinking of the person not as a door stop, but as a sexual object, there to provide pleasure to others. An objectified image in this sense would be one that emphasizes the person's sexuality, usually by showing a fair amount of skin. In the majority of cases, objectification refers to the portrayal of a semi-clothed woman's body that intends to emphasize her sexuality.

Such depictions raise the hackles particularly of feminists who believe that the objectification process is far more pronounced with regard to women than men. You only have to look at ads for women’s clothing, lingerie, and, well, almost anything to recognize that advertisers believe that the more skin the model shows, the more products they can sell. Heterosexual men are attracted to depictions of the semi-clothed female body and heterosexual women want to look like those women who attract those men. A byproduct of women’s objectification occurs when women become afraid to look too competent, thereby threatening the men in their lives, and so dress in ways that they think men will find sexy. In a world peopled with semi-clothed female models, being sexy to a woman means showing more of her skin.

The problem with objectification of women occurs when they start to think of themselves as nothing more than sex objects. Their self-esteem becomes dependent on how sexy they look, not how smart, nice, friendly, or inwardly attractive they are. Other problems result in their interactions with the men in their lives who themselves have become conditioned to objectify women. Men treat them with less respect, showing outright or subtle forms of sexism that can range from verbal and physical attacks to patronizing mannerisms that lead women to think of themselves as weak.

Researchers studying self-objectification have established a growing literature documenting the detrimental effects on women’s self-concepts of being regarded as little more than an object of someone else’s pleasure. What’s only recently come under scientific scrutiny is the impact on a woman of portraying herself in an objectified way to others. 

Social media presents you with countless opportunities (if not demands) to describe in words or pictures your physical attributes. On online dating sites, potential romantic partners may scrutinize what you say about your personality, interests, and background, but it’s more likely that they’ll decide whether or not to follow up with you on the basis of your picture. Even employers searching through online employment databases may make snap judgments about whether to hire you or not depending on your facial appearance or what you say are your height and weight. In this context, it becomes easy to think of yourself as the outward image you project to online viewers.

Even if you’re not trying to promote yourself in one of these online environments, by sharing pictures on Facebook or Instagram, you’re constantly putting yourself on visual display. As you do so, you might similarly try to imagine what your audience is thinking about you. Uploading a photo almost begs the question of how others will respond to the way you look whether you're wearing a skimpy bathing suit or a formal outfit. Just sharing your witticisms and insights online is unlikely to carry with it the same degree of pressure.

As common as these experiences are, there's relatively little data on the subject. Therefore, a 2013 publication by Dutch researchers Dian de Vries and Jochen Peter is particularly welcome. These investigators believed that Internet activities would combine with the more traditionally objectifying stimuli of women in the media to create a strong pull among young adult females to emphasize their physical attributes when thinking about themselves. Women in the 18-25 age range completed an online experiment in which they were led to think that they were participating in a consumer survey. To test the effect of media objectification, women were shown fragrance ads that showed either an objectified woman wearing lingerie or perfume bottles. To test the potential impact of self-objectification, the women were asked to describe themselves and choose an avatar that would be seen either by an online audience (with whom they would later interact) or to no audience at all. There were four conditions, then: audience or no audience and objectified or non-objectified ads.

As they expected, de Vries and Peter found that women who were primed with an objectified female model and then were asked to describe themselves to others were more likely to engage in self-objectification. This meant that when they described themselves for their supposed online audience, they were more likely to use phrases such as “I am beautiful,” to state that they exercised, and to express an interest in beauty-related topics such as cosmetics and fashion.  Because participants used open-ended self-descriptors, these phrases suggested that they actually started to see themselves in the ways envisioned by the researchers, a more powerful effect than what could be shown by ratings of pre-written statements.   

The de Vries and Peter study provides insight into the insidious ways that the media inserts itself into people’s self-images. This is more than the media’s providing a stereotypic or prejudicial view of individuals from a particular social group. In objectification, someone’s human qualities recede into the background and the utility that they can be for you moves to the foreground. Sexual objectification specifically means that you start to view others, and perhaps yourself, as being on this earth to provide physical gratification. The process is particularly damaging to young women, who are perhaps most vulnerable to influences on the development of their identities, but it can also be detrimental to women at any period of life if the message is consistently and unremittingly communicated, as it is in much of the media. In fact, one could argue that older women, thought to be past their “sell-by” date, may become convinced that they’re not even useful objects because they are no longer “sexy.”

People become likely to engage in self-objectification not only through being encouraged to portray themselves to an audience, however. Within social media circles, people also witness interactions involving objectification processes. They see others in their online communities commenting on the outward qualities of appearance, attractiveness, clothing, and makeup. All of these comments reinforce the evaluative nature of social media. In the best of all possible worlds, people in social networks are supportive and react to the inner state of people posting on these sites. However, the reality is that the world of social media can be harsh and judgmental. 

As de Vries and Peter acknowledge, it’s not just women who are the targets of self-objectification, but the probability is far higher that women are more affected than men. It’s also the case that this was a short-term experimental study, and it’s impossible to know what happens in the context of real online interactions. 

Although I’ve emphasized the detrimental effects of self-objectification, there is a positive message from this study. Self-objectification is often an unconscious reaction to images in the commercial and social media. By learning about this process, we can develop coping methods to, if you will, “dis-objectify” yourself and others. Thinking about the person behind the image can help you relate better to that person’s humanity, and your own.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


de Vries, D. A., & Peter, J. (2013). Women on display: The effect of portraying the self online on women’s self-objectification. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1483-1489. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2013.01.015

Photo by Thinkstock

Top 25: December 2013