Zack Carter Ph.D.

Clear Communication

Body Objectification: The Psychology Behind This Epidemic

Implicit association tests are clear. But they shouldn't be an excuse.

Posted Nov 09, 2017

pixabay, no attribution required
Understanding the psychology behind objectification might help us fight back. 
Source: pixabay, no attribution required

Let's talk about objectification.

At any given moment, according to a recent United Nations report, there are approximately 20 million human beings, women, girls, men, and boys, being retained in sexual oppression—sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, pornography— against their will, in many nations around the world, including each state of the United States, probably even someplace in the county you live in (United Nations Sustainable Development, 2017). Approximately 80 percent of those being sex trafficked presently are women and girls. Many of whom will never see freedom from slavery. Similarly, pornography can be viewed as equally objectifying, and in many cases, enslavement.

Former deputy assistant secretary Patrick Fagan for family and community policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services composed a 28-page study and two-page executive summary of effects of pornography which were released by the Sutherland Institute in relationship with the Family Research Council in Washington D.C. Excerpts from this study indicate, “pornography significantly distorts attitudes and perceptions about the nature of sexual intercourse.”  Fagan indicated men who routinely look at pornography have a greater tolerance for objectification, irregular sexual behaviors, sexual hostility, promiscuity and even rape. This evidence has been seen in the recent news and spread across social media.

For instance, we’ve lately seen a steady stream of powerful, prominent men (i.e. politicians, celebrities, and other notables) around the country being identified for having purportedly committed sexual assault, sexual harassment, or sexual discrimination of some variation against women, either past or present. Alongside, the #metoo social media campaign has gained traction with the goal to inspire others across the nation who have experienced similar sexual misconduct against them, to step up and speak out against misbehavior that often goes unreported. Now whether pornography is one potential factor to blame is unknown, but nevertheless, these actions are intolerable.

It is safe to say there is a worldwide consensus that sex trafficking, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual discrimination are human acts worth condemning, and a large agreement that pornography is worth denouncing. It stands to reason that if we are to fight objectification industries such as sex trafficking and pornography, and condemn sexual misconduct behavior, that the fight also be taken to the unconscious and conscious mind's objectification of the human body altogether. 

Implicit Association Tests (IAT), examined below, consistently demonstrate the power our unconscious prejudices play in our daily lives. From race to politics to even gender prejudices, when male and female research participants are presented with brief, momentary flashes of images, they make unconscious inferences, even when those inferences may connect with a prejudice they thought (or had hoped) they did not hold, even if it is without their knowledge. It’s why speed-dating is called speed-dating. The speed in which two humans view one another’s face and make a decision of surface-level likability or not based on facial characteristics (symmetry, form, expressions, etc…) is implicitly speedy. The question surrounding objectification of the female body is this: how do we control and even stop the speediness in which objectification occurs in the human mind?

It begins with just that: stewardship of the mind.

Unconscious (system one) and Conscious (system two) Objectification

The link between the above-discussed forms of objectification is cyclical, just as the fuel which runs the industries of sex trafficking and pornography, so does it fuel other areas of culture which objectifies the body. That is, whether consciously or unconsciously, objectification of the human body is orchestrated through two often interdependent cognitive processing systems.

System one is comprised of the intuitive, automatic, unconscious, and fast way of thinking, while system two makes up the more deliberate, controlled, conscious, and slower way of thinking. As you might assume, system one makes up the majority of how we make decisions, while system two makes up the latter. Both work in tandem to compose how you make decisions. Take the following example for instance.

Speeding across the interstate at eighty miles per hour, when all of a sudden you notice the traditional green, black, and white colors of Starbucks in the distance. Within what seems like a millisecond, at the last opportunity, you veer off of the interstate and onto the off-ramp to pay a visit to this both unconsciously and consciously known and desired caffeine fill-up station. Your trained, unconscious mind encourages you to make a conscious effort to not miss this opportunity for a wake-up call in a cup.          

But what will it take to wake-up and eliminate the objectification of the human body? The answer is exercising a conscious effort to avoid the opportunity to objectify it. Unfortunately, extensive research suggests objectification often occurs unconsciously. So, it would stand to reason that training the mind consciously to avoid objectification is a prerequisite to then train the unconscious mind not to. Getting system one under control is the objective to avoid objectification. Implicit association tests communicate the difficulty with this, but it isn’t impossible.

Unfortunate Reality of Objectification

The implicit association test (IAT) is a measure within social psychology designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic association between mental representations of objects in memory. IAT’s time and time again communicate the heartbreak of implicit judgments such as objectification.

Vast research indicates considerable amounts of both men and women from all demographics around the world objectify the female body (Bernard, Gervais, Allen, Campomizzi, Klein, 2012; Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2010; Calogero, 2004; Gurung & Chrouser, 2007). The research in these articles is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to IAT’s and gender and communication research, with all of the literature being substantial and supported.

The way IAT’s work in the following studies is that when presented with brief electronic images of the female body either nude, wearing upper extremity or lower extremity underwear, form-fitting or revealing clothing, both male and female participants implicitly objectify or self-objectify the female body (Bernard, Gervais, Allen, Campomizzi, Klein, 2012; Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2010; Calogero, 2004; Gurung & Chrouser, 2007). On the contrary, when presented with photographs of the male body, there exists very little objectification or self-objectification. Which goes to show that there is a de-humanization of the female body as compared with the body of the male when participants view it through a lens of objectification.

The conclusions from these studies above communicate the wide-spread pervasiveness of objectification (sexual objectification of the human body) and self-objectification (sexual objectification of the human body and its comparison with yours) and connect back to the discussion concerning the need to monitor the conscious mind in order to influence the unconscious mind.

System two (conscious) feeds off of system one’s (unconscious) objectives—whether to objectify or not to objectify—thus, system two must be readily monitored, avoiding consciously objectifying or self-objectifying, in order to discourage system one’s unconscious objectification. It’s important to understand the theoretical lens through which objectification and self-objectification are viewed.

Objectification Theory: A framework to understand objectification and self-objectification

To varying capacities, television media, social media, text messaging, clothing manufacturers, magazines, and online pornography are all contributors to hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, and sexual objectification of women (Custers & McNallie, 2016, Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005, Szymanski, Moffitt, and Carr, 2010, Moradi & Huand, 2008; Marika & Lynch, 2001; Sinclair, 2001). Objectification Theory provides an important framework for understanding, researching, and intervening to improve women’s lives in a sociocultural context that sexually objectifies the female body and equates a woman’s worth with her body’s appearance and sexual functions (Szymanski, Moffitt, and Carr, 2010).

The theory argues that women from Western cultures are regularly looked at, assessed, and, consequently, potentially objectified. It contends that being exposed to numerous forms of bodily objectification (such as sexual gaze) gradually causes women and girls to eventually see themselves as an “object” for others to view and evaluate on the basis of their appearance. In the age of electronic communication, social media has provided a platform for users to be evaluated by the self-images they post.

Social comparison theory plays a dangerous role in the mental health equation, too, when coupled with Objectification Theory. Objectification Theory contends that those women who self-objectify both in person and through social media images as a result of internalizing an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and often exhibit self-objectification, negative mood, body shame, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, disordered eating, anxiety, and depression (Noll & Fredrickson, 1998; Tiggemann & Kuring, 2004; Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001; Tiggemann & Slater, 2001).

Though all Western women live in an objectifying culture, not all women are equally affected by it. Individual differences in women’s experiences of self-objectification and its consequences exist. This is because particular environments or subcultures (those drawing attention to the body) increase the likelihood of experiencing self-objectification (Fredrickson et al., 1998).

One particular environment with an increased focus on bodily appearance is fitness centers. Research has examined this context and its contributing objectifying elements which include multiple full-length mirrors, posters idealizing the female body, the opportunity for direct comparison with other women, scanty and revealingly aerobic clothing, and the presence of men observing women exercising.

Participants in these settings scored high on self-objectification, and this is supported by the finding that young women who attend fitness centers self-objectify more than other general samples (Strelan et al., 2003). This study references Prichard and Tiggemann (2005) who indicate, “Higher levels of self-objectification were also related to wearing tighter exercise clothing. These results support the general model of Objectification Theory, and provide practical implications for women who exercise within objectifying environments.”

Additionally, Strelan et al. (2003) conclude that high self-objectification was associated with exercising for appearance-related reasons, whereas exercising for health/fitness was associated with lower self-objectification. Thus, whether one exercise for appearance-related or health/fitness reasons requires a conscious (system two) effort, and thus, unconscious (system one) self-objectification will then either increase or decrease based on system one’s choice. As implicit association tests (IAT) discussed above provide empirical evidence that humans are persuaded by images, it should come to no surprise that social media is a major contributor to objectifying the human body.

Studies on social comparison, anxiety, depression, and even infidelity reveal the power that social media images of humans’ bodies have on the human mind, both consciously and unconsciously (Moradi & Huand, 2008; Marika & Lynch, 2001; Sinclair, 2001; Carter, 2016). Self-promotion sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat, and the ease-of-use in social comparing the physique, contributing to self-objectification, particularly with regard to supposed feminine beauty ideals, and in turn contribute to decreased body satisfaction, unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating, depressive symptoms and low self-esteem (Talbot, Gavin, van Steen & Morey, 2017).

The Fight Against Objectification Begins with You

Unconscious (system one) objectification is not a valid excuse for exercising objectification of the human body, as the extensive ramifications of body objectification have on human beings around the world. Monitoring the conscious (system two) mind, taking intentional steps to avoid processing objectified thoughts is necessary to train the unconscious mind not to abuse the human body visually. And equally important, considering implications of messages sent through your nonverbal physical behavior, whether in person or online, in a world enslaved to objectifying the human body through sexual trafficking, pornography, and media.

Fighting objectification begins with monitoring behavior. Whether you need to consciously monitor your eyes or mind with what you see, say, and do in order to unconsciously avoid objectifying others, or, exercising discernment with clothes you choose to wear to the gym or even the pictures you may choose to post social media, the fight against objectification and self-objectification involves all of us.