A new study has shown that objectification can make college-aged women more accepting of the status quo and less likely to engage in social activism, potentially contributing to gender inequality.
“My research focused on self-objectification, which is a self-perspective that many women adopt as a primary consequence of regular encounters of sexual objectification,” the study’s author, Rachel M. Calogero of the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, explained to Raw Story.
The study, published last month in Psychological Science, found that women who were primed to evaluate themselves based on their appearance and sexual desirability had a decreased motivation to challenge gender-based inequalities and injustices.
“Self-objectification has been causally linked to a number of negative physical, mental, and behavioral health outcomes in girls and women, and even some men,” Calogero added. “My research went further to test the theoretical notion that objectifying practices sustain inequality at a broader level. I demonstrated that self-objectification is connected to women’s motivation to challenge the status quo.”
The study contained two separate experiments to investigate the relationship between self-objectification and social activism.
The first experiment tested whether female college students who valued appearance-based attributes like “physical attractiveness” over competence-based attributes like “physical fitness” were more or less likely to accept the current state of gender relations.
Calogero found that women who placed greater value on appearance-based attributes were more likely to accept the status quo. Not surprisingly, those who accepted the status quo were also less likely to speak out about gender equality or sign a petition in support of women’s rights.
“In short, primarily valuing and investing in appearance domains and viewing oneself in terms of a sexual object is related to women devaluing and investing less in social action that would better serve their in-group (e.g., supporting female candidates for political office),” she told Raw Story. “This pattern seems to emerge because the more women self-objectify, the less likely they are to report perceiving anything wrong with the gender status quo, so what is there to change?”
Though Calogero found a clear relationship between self-objectification and efforts to promote gender equality, her second experiment sought to better understand the causal relationship of this correlation.
Calogero had one group of college women recall an experience in which they felt objectified, while a second group of college women were asked to write about how they would spend a $50 Target gift card. Both groups of women then described themselves in 10 sentences, and completed questionnaires to assess their opinion of gender relations and their desire to participate in social activism.
The women who recalled being objectified were more likely to describe their physical appearance, confirming they had been primed to objectify themselves. The women who objectified themselves showed a greater acceptance of gender norms and reported being less likely to participate in social activism in the future.
Given the numerous sources of female objectification in Western society, from leering at women on the subway to highly-sexualized advertisements, Calogero told Raw Story that the issue was worthy of more scientific attention. Though feminist thinkers have long discussed the negative consequences — and even the potential empowerment — that results from objectification, the topic has been subjected to little experimental research.
“Why do we objectify others? Why do we seem to compulsively objectify girls and women, at seemingly younger and younger ages, in this culture?” Calogero said. “I think there are multiple and converging forces at play with respect to objectification. What we do know is that the evidence for the objectification of women across a variety of media and interpersonal sources is overwhelming and that it brings harm to both women and men. Keep in mind that sexual objectification includes a range of encounters from less to more extreme. It is not just checking out women or sexualized media portrayals of women, but sexual harassment and violence as well.”