Objectification Is Not Driven by Revealing Clothing

A new study shows that objectification is related to suggestive postures.

Posted Jul 02, 2018

In a recent paper, Bernard and colleagues report that sexual objectification is not driven by revealing clothes, but by suggestive postures.1

Background information

We are constantly exposed to images of sexuality, of people in revealing clothes and in suggestive postures, on TV and in movies, but also in video games, advertisements, etc.

The question is: Do these images objectify people?

Before we can answer this question, we need to define a few terms, and also discuss how the brain perceives other people (as opposed to objects). First the terms: 

Sexual objectification describes the act of regarding or treating others mainly in terms of their body and body parts (and how the body parts can be used to satisfy one’s sexual desires).

A related term, sexualization refers to sexualized depiction of others, and reflects factors such as nudity, revealing clothing, and postures suggestive of sexual availability or sexual activity.2

The study’s authors, Bernard and colleagues, observe that “Objectification may not be an inevitable outcome of sexualization—for example, people may have sex with relationship partners in which their partner is sexualized without inevitably thinking of their partner as a sexual object.”1

Let us turn to the question of what it means to think of another person as an object. Usually, human bodies and faces are perceived as a single entity. This is called configural processing

Indeed, people have difficulty recognizing body parts when the part in question is presented alone (not in the context of the whole body), attached to another person’s body, etc.

skeeze/Pixabay
Source: skeeze/Pixabay

In case of objects, however, people rely more on analytical processing. That means, they see objects as collections of parts, and not as a whole.

In sexual objectification we are more likely to process bodies analytically (as though they were objects).

Just to give you an idea of what is meant by analytical processing of people, as opposed to objects, take a look at this picture. If you are a big fan of the person in the picture, you might have recognized him quickly, but in case that you did not, you probably found yourself looking at his facial features separately.

Inverting faces is one way that researchers force participants to rely more on analytical processing. For instance, this method was used in a study (on eyebrow distinctness and narcissism) that I reported on earlier.

You might be wondering how researchers can tell if someone is objectifying another person, and seeing this person as a collection of body parts, just as some of you might have seen the inverted face of James Stewart merely as a collection of facial features. 

One way is to record the brain responses of the viewer.

What kind of responses are researchers looking for? N170 mainly, a brain signal which responds differently to different types of pictures; namely, small amplitude N170 is associated with processing of objects; higher amplitude, with processing of bodies; and highest amplitudes, with processing of faces.  

And just as expected, in an earlier study on objectification of female bodies, Bernard and colleagues found no inversion effect for sexualized female bodies, meaning that those bodies were perceived more like objects.3

The current study

The present investigation examined whether cognitive objectification is associated with skin-to-clothing ratio (e.g., which is higher for images of women in, say, lingerie than in a dress) or posture suggestiveness (e.g., subtle postures or less subtle ones, like sitting with legs open).1

In the first two studies, while the brain activity (including N170) of the participants was being recorded using electroencephalography (EEG), participants were presented with pictures of bodies in non-suggestive and suggestive poses, and pictures of bodies with both higher and lower skin-to-clothing ratio. Other stimuli included inverted pictures.

Given that many suggestive postures are asymmetrical (e.g., a woman standing with one hand on her hip), in the last study the researchers attempted to rule out body asymmetry as potential reason for objectification.

Greyerbaby/Pixabay
Source: Greyerbaby/Pixabay

Overall, females, bodies with high skin-to-clothing ratio, and bodies with suggestive postures were considered more sexually arousing.  

But only posture suggestiveness resulted in cognitive objectification “as indexed by similar N170s for inverted and upright bodies with suggestive postures.” 

The researchers noted that though suggestive postures resulted in objectification for both men and women, given that females are more likely to self-sexualize, and to be shown in suggestive poses (e.g., in advertisements), they are at a higher risk to be objectified.

The implication of this finding is that to reduce sexualization-related objectification, it is better to focus on suggestive postures than on revealing clothing. 

For example, the models in underwear advertisers, though necessarily in revealing clothes and showing a lot of skin, can still choose to stand in nonsuggestive postures.

Other ways to counteract objectification—given that previous research has shown that power increases the likelihood of objectification—is to reduce the power of the objectifier.  

Furthermore, previous research by Bernard and colleagues has also shown that objectification can be reduced by “diminishing the visibility of...[the person’s] sexual body parts,” and by “providing individuating information about them.”4 To illustrate, framing techniques that do not emphasize a particular sexual body part (but the woman’s body as a whole) can lessen objectification; as can information about the woman on the screen (as an individual human being with her own views, goals, etc).

skeeze/Pixabay
Source: skeeze/Pixabay

p.s. and here is James Stewart’s face again, no longer a collection of facial features. Better this way, don’t you think?

References

1. Bernard, P., Hanoteau, F., Gervais, S., Servais, L., Bertolone, I., Deltenre, P., & Colin, C. (in press). Revealing clothing does not make the object: ERP evidences that cognitive objectification is driven by posture suggestiveness, not by revealing clothing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Doi:10.1177/0146167218775690

2. Pacilli, M., G., Pagliaro, S., Loughnan, S., Gramazio, S., Spaccatini, F., & Baldry, A., C. (2017). Sexualization reduces helping intentions towards female victims of intimate partner violence through mediation of moral patiency. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56, 293-313.

3.Bernard, P., Gervais, S. J., Allen, J., Campomizzi, S., & Klein, O. (2012). Integrating sexual objectification with object versus person recognition: The sexualized body-inversion hypothesis. Psychological Science, 23, 469-471.

4. Bernard, P., Gervais, S. J., Allen, J., Delmee, A., & Klein, O. (2015). From sex objects to human beings: Masking sexual body parts and humanization as moderators to women’s objectification. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39, 432-446.