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Women Perform Worse When Focusing on Their Looks

Self-objectification hinders womens' performance

Dozens of published studies suggest that women do worse, and feel worse, after self-objectifying - that is, focusing on their own appearance.

Social psychologists Barbara Fredrickson (University of North Carolina) and Tomi-Ann Roberts (Colorado College) proposed objectification theory. From this perspective, the heavy emphasis that culture and the media places on the appearance of females, specifically their sexualization, leads women to place a high value on their appearance. Specifically, they argue that women are more likely than men to take on an "outsider' perspective, such that they view their own appearance from a third person perspective. This requires cognitive and motivational effort, which in turn, impairs women's cognitive performance.

In one study testing this, these authors had women try on a bathing suit or a sweater. After trying on a swimsuit, but not a sweater, women performed worse on a math test. These same effects did not occur for men. Other studies have found similar effects when women look into a mirror (or not), are videotaped by a male or receive feedback about their appearance.

When women are self-objectifying, they also are more likely to restrain their eating, and to experience shame and guilt related to their physical appearance.

The cultural expectations and norms surrounding women's physical appearance are vast and stringent. From the perspective of objectification theory, women internalize these standards, and in turn, they suffer, both cognitively and emotionally.


Fredrickson, B.L., & Roberts, T.A., (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women's lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women, 21, 173-206.

Fredrickson, B.L., Roberts, T.A., Noll, S.M., Quinn, D. M., & Twenge, J. M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 269- 284.

Gay, R.K., & Castano, E. (2010). My body or my mind: The impact of state and trait self objectification on women's cognitive performance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 695- 703.