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

Beware the dangers of getting too caught up with your online look.

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 external damage caused by showing your rowdy, party-animal, side to the world, placing undue focus on your online appearance may also threaten the health of your own bodily self-image.

To understand why, we need to take a look at the process of "objectification." In psychology, this term refers to the tendency to treat an individual not as a person with emotions and thoughts, but as a physical being or “object.” In most cases, it refers to thinking of a person not as a doorstop, 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 intended to emphasize her sexuality.

Such depictions raise the hackles of those who bemoan 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, the thinking goes, want to look like those women who attract those men. A byproduct of women’s objectification can occur when certain women become reluctant to look too competent—potentially 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 too often means showing more of her skin. When self-esteem becomes largely dependent on how sexy one looks—and not how intelligent, kind, friendly, or inwardly attractive one is—other problems result, especially in their interactions with the men in their lives, who themselves may have become conditioned to objectify women. Men might treat them with less respect, showing outright or subtle forms of sexism that can range from patronizing mannerisms to verbal or even physical attacks.

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

And that's where one's online photos come in.

Social media presents us with countless opportunities (if not demands) to describe in words, or pictures, our physical attributes. On online dating sites, potential romantic partners may scrutinize what you say about your personality, interests, and background, but it’s at least as 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 interview you or not based on your facial appearance or 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, when you share pictures on Facebook or Instagram, you’re putting yourself on visual display. In doing so, you might try to imagine what your audience is thinking about you. Choosing to upload a photo in a formal suit or a skimpy bathing suit almost begs the question of how others will respond to the way you look. Just sharing your witticisms and insights online is unlikely to carry the same degree of pressure.

And yet, as common as these experiences have become, there's relatively little research data on the subject.

That's why a 2013 publication by Dutch researchers Dian de Vries and Jochen Peter is particularly welcome. These investigators believed that online activities would combine with the more traditionally objectifying stimuli of women in the mass media to create a strong pull among young adult females to emphasize physical attributes when thinking about themselves. Female participants age 18-25 completed an online experiment in which they were led to think they were participating in a consumer survey. To test the effect of media objectification, the women were shown fragrance ads that depicted either a 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 by 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 asked to describe themselves to others were more likely to engage in self-objectification.

When these subjects described themselves for their supposed online audience, they were more likely to use phrases such as “I am beautiful,” to state that they exercised, or 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 our self-images. In objectification, someone’s human qualities recede into the background and the utility that they can provide moves to the foreground. Sexual objectification specifically means that one starts to view others, and perhaps themselves, as, at some level, existing to provide physical gratification.

The process is particularly damaging to young women vulnerable to such influences on the development of their identities, but it can also be detrimental to people at any period of life if the message is consistently and unremittingly communicated, as it is in much media. (In fact, one could argue that older women, under this mindset, may become convinced that they’re not even useful objects anymore because they are no longer “sexy.”)

People don't only become likely to engage in self-objectification online through the way they portray themselves to their audience. In social media circles, we witness others consistently commenting on outward qualities of appearance, attractiveness, clothing, and makeup. All of these 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 states of fellow posters. However, the reality is that the online world can be harsh and judgmental.

As de Vries and Peter acknowledge, it’s not only 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 theirs was a short-term experimental study.)

I’ve emphasized the detrimental effects of online self-objectification, but there is also a positive message in the study: Self-objectification is often an unconscious reaction to images in commercial and social media. By gaining greater awareness of this process, we can develop surer coping methods to, if you will, “dis-objectify” ourselves.

Thinking about the person behind the image can help you relate better to that person’s humanity—and your own.

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