Why we objectify and self-objectify?

In my previous post, I wrote about the theoretical perspective(s) of objectification and self-objectification and their potential preventive and treatment mechanisms. In this essay, I focus on the factors contributing to objectification and self–objectification. In general, objectification theorists do not try to explain why objectification occurs, but rather take it as “given that [individuals] exist in a culture in which their bodies are – for whatever reason – looked at, evaluated, and always potentially objectified” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997, p. 177). The importance that bodies or collection of body parts have are provided within social and cultural context; and consequently message about the importance of bodies or collection of body parts have are constructed through sociocultural interactions.

One of the venues where objectification occurs is in interpersonal and social interactions. Many of us have been the recipients of some sort of sexual “gaze” and/or “leer” (i.e., cultural practices of sexual objectification). Supposedly, women are more gazed at and looked at compared to their male counterparts and can often be accompanied by sexually evaluative commentary. Evidence suggested that the gaze from a member of a different sex may have differential effects on individuals. For example, if females anticipate a male’s gaze, they are more negatively affected compared to women who anticipated a female’s gaze. In addition, women who anticipated a female’s gaze have experienced less shame and social physique anxiety.

The second venue where objectification can be experienced is in visual media that portray interpersonal and social interactions. Women are more likely than men to be monitored by others when looking off into a distance, daydreaming, or otherwise mentally drifting (Goffman, 1979).

Probably the most harmful way that we experience objectification gaze is through visual media depicting bodies and body parts where sexual gazing is implicit. Meaning that looking at ones’ intimate body parts can occur unconsciously. This sexual gazing is not limited to pornography only, but also to films, artwork, advertisements, television programs, fashion, beauty and fitness magazines, and photography. The mass media, including television, fashion, and beauty magazines, often portrays a thin, lean, and “ideal” female body. As a result, many women, and to lesser extent men, are subjected to pressure to keep up with what society suggests – thus wanting to have an “ideal” physique. Any deviation from the stereotypical ideal may be considered bad or not normal. As a consequence, many people are dissatisfied or unhappy with their body, especially with their weight and size. The mass media is one of the most influential factors to body-dissatisfaction. In particular, fashion, beauty and fitness magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, People, Women’s Health, Man’s Health, Man’s Fitness, Maxim, and Esquire, have been a leading source in disseminating the thin ideal for women and a lean muscular ideal for men. For example, exposure to fashion and beauty magazines correlated with trait and state self-objectification, body-dissatisfaction, symptoms of eating disorders, other psychological and health related issues.

As mentioned in my previous post, engagement in physical activity and exercise in one of potential preventive and treatment mechanisms for objectification and self-objectification. Many people are aware of a wide variety of physical and psychological benefits of regular exercise and physical activity, including physical and mental or psychological benefits. Despite the wide range of benefits of physical activity and exercise, millions of U.S. adults remain essentially sedentary (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). Although much is known about these positive effects of exercise, they are not universal. For example, motivation and the exercise environment can impact whether exercise acts as a buffer for body image. For example, if someone exercises for health, endurance, and fitness-related reasons, that person has higher chances to experience the benefits. On the other hand, if someone exercises to look good and mainly for the appearance-related reasons (e.g., weight control, body tone, attractiveness, and cosmetic outcomes), it is more likely that this person experiences poor body image, disordered eating, and body-dissatisfaction. It is also interesting that individuals who exercise to address objectification concerns are more likely to exercise for appearance-related reasons that have been linked to poor body image and disordered eating. As such, the previously mentioned exercise benefits for these individuals do not translate into increased body- and self-esteem, body-satisfaction, or increased psychological well-being. On the other hand, people who do not view exercise as addressing self-objectification concerns exercised more for the intrinsic value of the exercise (e.g., health benefits, fitness, and diseases). Perhaps it is possible that the individuals who exercise for appearance-related reasons are doing so as a reaction to low body-esteem and high self-objectification. It is also possible that exercising in response to low body-esteem contributes to an increase likelihood of self-objectification. More research is needed in order to answer this and questions alike.

Whether individuals experience negative exercise effects does not depend only on one’s motives for exercise, but also on the exercise environment. For example, exercising in the fitness center environment has been shown to be positively correlated with self-objectification concerns, disordered eating, and excessive weight loss. Fitness facilities are venues where people usually engage in health-benefiting exercise behaviors. In this setting, the body is often an individual’s central focus and one which lends itself to seeing the body as an object that can be trimmed, shaped, refined, and buffered via appropriate exercise protocols. Moreover, people are surrounded by mirrors in which they are likely to observe themselves and others in revealing clothing; fitness facilities often display posters of ideal bodies and body builders, which might have an adverse impact on exercisers. This suggests that fitness center facilities may serve as an objectified environment.

The above mentioned factors do not explain why people objectify and self-objectify, but rather contribute to these experiences. Future research and discussions should focus on answering the question “Why one’s body is reduced to its parts?” for which some preliminary evidence has been shown by Gervais and her colleagues (2013).

Written by Urska Dobersek

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