The Effects of Sexual Objectification on Women's Mental Health
Every day in the United States, women face many different forms of gender oppression and discrimination. Examples range on a spectrum from sexist jokes said in passing to sexual harassment and coercion, physical abuse, rape, and even murder. A sexist joke and an act of sexual violence might be dismissed as two very different and unrelated events, but they are in fact related. These two behaviors are connected by the presence of sexual objectification. Culturally common and often condoned in the U.S., the sexual objectification of women is a driving and perpetuating component of gender oppression, systemic sexism, sexual harassment, and violence against women (Berdahl, 2007; Fairchild & Rudman, 2008; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Gardner, 1995; Harned, 2000; Kozee, Tylka, Augustus-Horvath, & Denchick, 2007; Miles-McLean et al., 2015; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, & Ferguson, 2001). According to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, the analysis of global data reveals alarming results indicating that the prevalence of violence against women is a worldwide health epidemic (World Health Organization, 2013). Given its ubiquitous nature and contributing status to the perpetuation of gender violence and other sexist beliefs and behaviors, sexual objectification demands a detailed exploration in order to reach a more nuanced understanding of its consequences.
Sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are isolated from her whole and complex being and treated as objects simply to be looked at, coveted, or touched (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Once sexually objectified, the worth of a woman’s body or body part is directly equated to its physical appearance or potential sexual function and is treated like it exists solely for others to use or consume (Fairchild & Rudman, 2008; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Szymanski, Moffit, & Carr, 2011). The mental health repercussions of constant sexual objectification have only fairly recently begun to be questioned and explored within the field of psychology, with researchers often taking cues from feminist literature and theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Szymanski & Henning, 2007; Szymanski et al., 2011). Less than twenty years ago, Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) presented objectification theory as a framework through which to better understand the experiences of and psychological risks faced by women in a culture that is constantly looking at, evaluating, and objectifying the female body. Through the foundational lens of objectification theory, this literature review seeks to identify and explore the various iterations of sexual objectification and their combined impact on women’s mental health.
Forms of Sexual Objectification
Women frequently face sexual objectification in daily interpersonal interactions and through the active and passive consumption of multimedia. These two main avenues of exposure create a continuous stream of sexually objectifying experiences and images (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Miles-McLean et al., 2015). Interpersonal sexual objectification occurs in the forms of unwanted body evaluation and sexual advances (Kozee et al., 2007; Miles-McLean et al., 2015). Developed by Kozee et al. (2007), the Interpersonal Sexual Objectification Scale (ISOS) measures the extent of individuals’ sexually objectifying encounters. The ISOS qualifies behaviors like catcalling and whistling, sexually insinuating stares, leering, and inappropriate sexual comments made about a woman’s body as unwanted forms of body evaluation (Kozee et al., 2007). Research shows that this type of sexual objectification is more often perpetrated by strangers than acquaintances (Fairchild & Rudman, 2008; MacMillan, Nierobisz, & Welsh, 2000), and often takes place in public spaces (Macmillan et al., 2000). The ISOS qualifies behaviors like touching, fondling, or pinching someone inappropriately against her will, degrading sexual gestures, and sexual harassment or coercion as unwanted sexual advances (Gelfand, Fitzgerald & Drasgow, 1995; Kozee et al., 2007). Some of these behaviors are now commonly referred to as microaggressions, which Nadal and Haynes (2012) define as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities (often unconscious and unintentional) that communicate hostile, derogatory, or invalidating messages” (p. 89). Gendered microaggressions are generally sexist in nature (Nadal & Haynes, 2012), and many acts of sexual objectification qualify as microaggressions by this definition. The ISOS measure simultaneously implies and supports the assertion that when women experience these culturally normalized microaggressions, they are indeed being sexually objectified by the perpetrator.
The experience of sexual objectification is not limited to interpersonal interactions with strangers or acquaintances. Most media outlets create further scenarios that expose women to sexual objectification, especially considering that more women than men are depicted in the media in a sexually objectifying manner (Szymanski et al., 2011). Advertisements, television shows, movies, music videos, printed media, and pornography all rampantly depict sexually objectifying images of women. Additionally, they often include characters who engage in sexually objectifying behaviors and include camera shots that place viewers in a sexually objectifying point of view (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Szymanski et al., 2011). Media’s vast reach ensures that women and girls of all ages, socio-cultural backgrounds, and geographical locations are affected by these images (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Szymanski et al., 2011). The sexual objectification of women extends into all corners of culture and society in the U.S.
Effects of Sexual Objectification on Women’s Mental Health
Objectification theory posits that constant exposure to sexually objectifying experiences and images socializes women to internalize society’s perspective of the female body as their own primary view of their physical selves (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Szymanski & Henning, 2007). This internalization is often referred to as self-objectification, and it characterized by varying levels of thoughts and behaviors such as self-conscious body monitoring, surveillance, and comparison of one’s body or body parts to the cultural standard or ideal (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009; Fairchild & Rudman, 2008; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Self-objectification is even found in women who view sexual objectification as harmless or even complimentary (Fairchild & Rudman, 2008). Research has linked self-objectification to mental health outcomes such as depression, disordered eating, and reduced productivity. So, the sexual objectification of women indirectly contributes to their mental health problems because it leads to self-objectification (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Harned, 2000; Szymanski & Henning, 2007).
Shame, anxiety, and depression. According to objectification theory, the internalization of sexual objectification leads to constant self-monitoring, creating a state of self-consciousness that breeds feelings of shame and anxiety (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Newer studies support this assertion, finding that self-objectification is in fact correlated with higher rates of body shame and appearance anxiety (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009; Miles-McLean et al., 2015; Szymanski & Henning, 2007). Furthermore, recent research also shows that sexual objectification in the form of stranger harassment can be a source of anxiety if it inflames underlying fears of victimization and rape (Culbertson, Vik, & Kooiman, 2001; Fairchild & Rudman, 2008; MacMillan et al., 2000). The feelings of shame and anxiety resulting from self-objectification have been found to subsequently lead to depression (Szymanski & Henning, 2007). Prolonged exposure to sexual objectification may also contribute to insidious trauma which is marked by psychological trauma symptoms that occur due to lifelong exposure to microaggressions (Miles-McLean et al., 2015; Nadal & Haynes, 2012), as opposed to one large trauma. Some of the psychological symptoms found to be associated with the trauma of sexual objectification include anxiety and depression (Harned, 2000; Miles-McLean et al., 2015). Unfortunately, depression may not be the end of the correlational chain in the context of sexual objectification, as it has also been found to be related to disordered eating among women (Harned, 2000; Szymanski & Henning, 2007).
Disordered eating. Multiple studies have found a relationship between sexual objectification and disordered eating. Harned (2000) found that sexual harassment, which is often comprised of sexually objectifying behaviors, was a significant predictor of most disordered eating symptoms, even after controlling for previous physically violent sexual experiences. Supporting the findings of Harned (2000), a study done by Augustus-Horvath and Tylka (2009) found that self-objectification is positively correlated with body shame, and body shame is correlated with greater tendencies toward maladaptive eating habits (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009). Even self-objectifying women who report to enjoy being sexualized have still been found to engage in negative eating attitudes (Liss, Erchull, & Ramsey, 2011). Self-objectification and its possible outcomes of depression and disordered eating may in turn hinder women’s overall productivity.
Reduced states of productivity and flow. Objectification theory posits that constant objectification creates a continuous stream of anxiety-provoking experiences, requiring women to maintain at least part of their concentration on their physical appearance and safety at all times in order to better anticipate the perceptions and actions of others (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). The self-objectification and self-consciousness that results from experiencing sexual objectification may diminish women’s peak motivational states (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), or what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) refers to as “flow.” Flow occurs when a situation requiring mental attention is perceived as challenging, but the skills required to meet the challenge are perceived as high, resulting in a highly productive and enjoyable experience. These states are marked by a loss of self-consciousness because all mental energy is focused purely on the task and not on the existence of self (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Women who self-objectify are less likely to experience the undivided attention characteristic of flow because part of their attention is always dedicated to physical self-monitoring (Fairchild & Rudman, 2008; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Szymanski & Henning, 2007), and therefore they may experience reduced rates of productivity and general life enjoyment (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).
The current literature makes it clear that sexual objectification is both directly and indirectly linked to various mental health distresses and disorders in women, including anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and reduced experiences of flow and productivity. Constant experiences of sexual objectification cause women to internalize society’s scrutiny; the resulting self-objectification leads to habitual body monitoring and self-consciousness, which in turn increases feelings of body shame and appearance anxiety and diminishes states of flow. These variables can then lead to depression, which may be a risk factor in the development of disordered eating habits (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009; Szymanski & Henning, 2007; Szymanski et al., 2011).
The literature at hand is informative, but it is merely a platform whose roots and implications must be explored further. First of all, participants in most of the existing literature are overwhelmingly white, college-aged, educated women who identify predominantly as heterosexual if and when they are asked about their sexuality (Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2009; Fairchild & Rudman, 2008; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Harned, 2000; Kozee et al., 2007; Swim et al., 2001). Future research should further strive to include or isolate women of different races and ethnicities, varying sexual identities, education levels, and socioeconomic statuses to account for the possible interaction effects these variables might have with experiences of sexual objectification. Existing research also includes the importance of media as a major contributing factor in women’s sexually objectifying experiences. Future researcher should take care to note the expanding realm of social media and its role in multiplying the presentations of sexually objectifying images of women as well as providing women with a potential platform to visually self-objectify. Furthermore, it is important to remember that though men are the main perpetrators of the sexual objectification of women, they are also exposed to it and experience it. Sexual objectification awareness initiatives should not only be directed at girls and women, but at boys and men, parents and teachers. Despite various limitations, the present data and its implications for female development and mental health trajectories should still be seriously considered in the realms of policy, public health, and education.
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