Most of us grew up with media, environments, and interpersonal interactions suggesting that women’s value is tied to their looks and sexual appeal to men. This is known as sexual objectification (SO), the reduction of people to physical objects of sexual desire. Although the sexual objectification of men is a growing trend, sexual objectification theory (originated by Frederickson and Roberts in 1997) has focused on women as physical objects of male sexual desire.
SO has played a big role in my life. The magazines “Playboy” and “Cosmopolitan” were always present in my childhood home. I received compliments and attention not for being smart, but for being pretty. By early adolescence, I had internalized my culture’s sexual objectification of women and self-objectified. I began wearing makeup the second I could get away with it and dressed like a little tart. Throughout my life, my physical attractiveness has played way too big a role in determining my self-worth.
Such self-objectification, which arises out of our culture’s sexual objectification of women, is experienced by many. And, it’s linked to disordered eating, appearance anxiety, body surveillance, body dissatisfaction and shame, depression, substance abuse, and sexual dysfunction.
Self-objectification doesn’t affect all women and its experience is varied. SO battles can be related to weight, hair, skin color, or the shape and size of specific body parts. I am currently fighting an SO age battle. I resist feeling I am less valuable because I am no longer the pretty young thing I once was. A healthy adjustment to aging necessitates I stop seeing myself as a sexual object and rebel against the time-consuming, risky, and expensive measures needed to approximate sexualized ideals.
Men play a role in reducing the sexual objectification of women, especially in male friendship groups and environments, and by reducing their consumption of sexually objectifying media. But women also promote women’s sexual and self-objectification. For instance, in many groups of women, it is customary to critically evaluate our own and others’ physical appearance and to talk about clothes, hair, weight, and makeup. Mothers often teach daughters to self-objectify by focusing on their daughter’s weight and clothing, and by modeling excessive concern with physical appearance.
Psychologists believe that learning about SO reduces its impact, especially if we learn to challenge what are, for most of us, unattainable (or only temporarily attainable) beauty standards. They suggest that we actively work to:
• Override self-surveillance (e.g., not weighing ourselves so much, avoiding the mirror)
• Reduce our contact with sexually objectifying media (e.g. stop reading appearance-focused magazines)
• Reduce contact with sexually objectifying people or groups (e.g., I left a Bunco group dominated by discussions of appearance)
• Choose clothing based on comfort
• Challenge sexual objectification when we hear it or see it
• Decline to participate in demeaning the appearance of ourselves and others
• Counter critical self-statements (e.g., “It’s okay not to be thin as long as I am healthy”)
• Cultivate sustainable ways to affirm our worth
Side note: The sexual objectification of men is growing. Although research is limited, body image issues regarding weight and muscularity, eating disorders, and steroid abuse are increasingly common. Media messages tell men they need to overcome baldness, have soft skin, take testosterone, retain the sexual performance of their youth, and have action hero bodies. As women become less economically dependent on men, heterosexual women may change men from “success objects” into “sex objects” encouraged by current media trends. Surely this is not the gender equality we seek.
American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. "Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls." APA Talk Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association (2007).
Daniel, S., & Bridges, S. K. (2010). The drive for muscularity in men: Media influences and objectification theory. Body Image, 7, 32-38.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.
Moradi, B., & Huang, Y. P. (2008). Objectification theory and psychology of women: A decade of advances and future directions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 377-398.
Szymanski, D. M., Carr, E. R., & Moffitt, L. B. (2011). Sexual objectification of women: Clinical implications and training considerations. The Counseling Psychologist, 39, 107-126.
Szymanski, D. M., Moffitt, L. B., & Carr, E. R. (2011). Sexual objectification of women: Advances to theory and research. The Counseling Psychologist, 39, 6-38.