#NoFilter: Towards More Participation and Less (Edited) Observation in the Lives of Women

Ten years ago when I was a college student, I was asked to write a reflection of my recent experience with anorexia, which I had developed and also recovered from during college.  The aspect of the experience that I was most interested in explaining to readers was one I had not heard talked about by any of my treatment teams, the many fellow patients I met, or eating disorder resources I read, and I was struggling to understand it.  For me, the most distinctive aspect of what it was like to have anorexia was this marked shifting of perspective in my memories of time I was ill.  I wrote at the time,

I feel like I have been living my life in the third person. Recalling the first half of my college journey, my memories do not play back to me in bursts of sounds or colors, friends or lovers, feelings, touches, tastes, or ideas. They play, rather, as silent images of myself that flicker disjointedly across my mind, the lens of my memory having recorded my experience from an observer’s perspective rather than through my own eyes. [...] Rather than living, I’ve been watching myself live, distancing myself from my inner experience in order to observe myself from the outside.” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/abc.202/abstract)

I did not understand at the time that this was what feminist psychologists had been identifying as self-objectification.  Today, this phenomenon of women internalizing an observer’s perspective on the self and habitually monitoring their own appearance has been written about extensively (see Calogero, Tantleff-Dunn, and Thompson, 2011 for a review).

Although self-objectification is associated with eating disorder symptoms for many women (e.g., Calogero, Davis, & Thompson, 2005), as it was for me, it is also associated with many other behaviors and experiences.  One I have been thinking about a lot lately is our cultural obsession with documenting our experiences.  Although this appears to be shared by men and women alike, I think this compulsive documentation is of particular consequence for women.  Because while men and women alike may get swept up in the allure of social-media-enabled image sharing, women are the ones who are disproportionately likely to internalize an observer’s perspective on the self (see Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2011 for review). 

So I could only think of women when I read an article in the New York Times this spring in which Fairleigh University psychology professor Dr. Linda Henkel was interviewed regarding her research on the impact of taking photographs on our memorieslastupid.  Dr. Henkel’s experiments suggest a “photo-taking impairment effect” in which the act of taking a photograph of an experience impairs our memory of the experience (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/2/396).  Furthermore, she is examining how the act of taking a photograph changes our perspective within our memories; she explains,

“It’s like you’re watching a little movie; you’re seeing yourself in the scene. [...] There’s an ‘observer,’ third-person perspective versus a ‘field perspective through your own eyes. Photos seem to be shifting us to that observer perspective.”

Women in Western societies do NOT need more cultural practices that shift us to an observer perspective. We already have too many forces pulling us cognitively out of our own experiences – worry about weight and how we appear weight pulling us out of the enjoyment of eating, of sex, of physical activity.  As Frederickson and Roberts wrote, “In a culture that objectifies the female body, whatever girls and women do, the potential always exists for their thoughts and actions to be interrupted by images of how their bodies appear” (1997, p. 180).  Indeed, already, research suggests that women’s but not men’s autobiographical memories consist largely of imagery of the self from an observer’s perspective (Huebner & Fredrickson, 1999).

In addition to facilitating self-objectification and its consequences, compulsive image-taking and sharing seems to facilitate striving for effortless perfection.  Effortless perfection refers to pressure many women feel to be “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular” without struggling to get there (Wyler, 2003).  Effortless perfection focuses on the appearance of a perfect outcome, shielding the difficult process and many hard moments it took to get to that outcome.  Similarly, in the world of social media we do not post images in which we feel unattractive, or when we feel lost and confused about next steps in our life, or of moments that are sad or hard.  People may post photos of them working hard in a workout, but from the perspective of “This was easy for me to put in this much effort!”  The demand for posting (1) selectively images that show how enviable and great our lives are (look how beautiful my latte design is today!) (look at this gorgeous sunset from my vacation!) (look at how in love my new husband and I are!) along with (2) the cultural practice of editing these images to look even better than they naturally were (retaking selfies a million times until we look sufficiently attractive, putting filters on images until they appear vibrant) --- all of this continues to shift importance onto how these moments appear rather than to how we felt during them.

I am all for enjoying the beauty and art of photographs, and for preserving tokens of our experiences to serve as reminders that jog our memories, but I argue that it will benefit us to strive for more balance between being an observer and a participant than we currently practice.   I think a solution to this is striving to be more mindful – more present in the moment.  Gently reminding ourselves as often as we remember to bring out attention to what we are perceiving in a given moment using all of our senses, and even more importantly perhaps, to how it feels.

And when you go to take a picture of a moment, or to alter a picture of that moment to make it appear a certain way, maybe pause for a moment and consider – what do I want to remember about this?

 -Written by Kimberly Burdette 


Calogero, R. M., Tantleff-Dunn, S., & Thompson, J. K. (2011). Self-objectification in women: Causes, consequences, and counteractions. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Calogero, Davis, & Thompson, 2005. The role of self-objectification in the experience of women with eating disorders. Sex Roles, 52(1/2), 43-50.

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

Huebner, D. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (1999). Gender differences in memory perspectives: Evidence for self-objectification in women. Sex Roles, 41, 459-467.

Szymanski, D. M., Moffitt, L. B., & Carr, E. R. (2011). Sexual objectification of women: Advances to theory and research. The Counseling Psychologist, 39(1), 6-38.

Wyler, L. (2003, December 11). Variations on ‘effortless perfectionism.’ The Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.duke.edu/article/variations-effortless-perfection

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