Sexual objectification 1
Running head: SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION
Why and How Women Are Sexually Objectified
Sarah J. Gervais
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Theresa K. Vescio
The Pennsylvania State University
Address correspondence to:
Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D.
Psychology Department
338 Burnett Hall
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, NE 68588-0308
Phone: (814) 571-6079
E-mail: [email protected]
Sexual objectification 2
Abstract
This research examined why women are objectified and what psychological consequences
objectification has for objectifiers. We hypothesized that people are objectified to the degree
that they deviate from the normative person, which in Western cultures tends to be White and
male. Thus, we predicted that women would be objectified. One implication of this hypothesis,
however, is that to the degree that anyone deviates from the normative person, they may be
objectified. Therefore if men deviate from the normative person they may also be objectified. In
two experiments, we examined the objectification of stereotypic and hyper-stereotypic women
and men. In Experiment 1, we found that the objectifying gaze was directed at women and
hyper-stereotypic men more than stereotypic men. In Experiment 2, we found that women and
hyper-stereotypic men were more fungible than stereotypic men. Implications for objectification
theory are discussed.
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Why and How Women Sexually Objectified
Feminist theorists suggest that women are often reduced to their sexual body parts or
functions, or sexually objectified (Bartky, 1990; MacKinnon, 1987). Consistent with this notion,
women report being sexually objectified by others (Kozee, Tylka, Augustus-Horvath, &
Denchik, 2007) and women’s sexual appearance is often regarded as more important than other
attributes both by women themselves (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) and other people (Strelan &
Hargreaves, 2005). It is clear that women are objectified, but it is unclear why women are
objectified and what psychological consequences objectification has for objectifiers.
Why are Women Objectified?
Although researchers have not examined why women are objectified, researchers have
examined why women are categorized by their gender, rather than individuated (Tajfel, 1969).
Generally speaking, categorization and individuation processes are anchored at opposite ends of
the person perception continuum (Fiske & Neuberg, 1990). Categorization is the default unless
people are able and motivated to go beyond category-based perception to individuate others
(Brewer, 1988; see also Fiske, Lin, & Neuberg, 1999). Once categorized, similarities within
groups (e.g., women seen as similar to one another) and differences between groups (e.g.,
women and men seen as different from one another) are accentuated (see Allport, 1954; Hensley
& Duval, 1976) by the self (Oakes, Haslam, & Turner, 1994; Turner, Oakes, Haslam, &
McGarty, 1994) and others (Stangor, Lynch, Duan, & Glass, 1992; Taylor, Fiske, Etcoff, &
Rudman, 1977) and intergroup biases often follow (e.g., Vescio, Gervais, Hoover, & Snyder,
2005).
People are categorized to the degree that they deviate from the normative person, which
in Western cultures tends to be White and male. Thus, White men tend to be individuated while
Sexual objectification 4
racial minorities and women capture attention and are categorized according to non-normative
features (Zarate & Smith, 1990, Stroessner, 1996). For example, the babyish facial features and
emotional expressiveness of women capture attention and provide a basis for categorization
because they stand in contrast to the mature facial features and rationality of the normative man.
We propose that as people deviate from the norm that they may not only be categorized,
but they may also be objectified. When the non-normative features of women’s bodies (e.g.,
breasts, waists) provide the basis for categorization, women may be reduced to their sexual body
parts or sexually objectified.
Importantly, within any group of people (e.g., White women, White men), there are
individual differences in the degree to which a particular individual differs from the normative
person. For example, women with stereotypically feminine physical features differ from the
normative person because they have larger breasts and smaller waists than men. Women with
less stereotypically feminine physical features, or counter-stereotypic women, differ from the
normative man, but less so than stereotypic women because they have smaller breasts and larger
waists. Consequently, like men, counter-stereotypic women tend to be individuated, whereas
stereotypic women tend to be categorized. Although not the focus of much prior work, women
may also have more stereotypically feminine features, than stereotypic women. These hyperstereotypic women have larger breasts and smaller waists than even stereotypic women and
because they deviate most from the normative man, they may also be categorized.1
Integrating this research with our suggestion that people will be objectified as they
deviate from the normative person, we hypothesized that stereotypic and hyper-stereotypic
women would be sexually objectified. One implication of our suggestion, however, is that to the
degree that anyone deviates from the normative person, they may be objectified. Thus, if men
Sexual objectification 5
deviate from the normative person, they may also be objectified. The normative person tends to
be a stereotypic man, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. However, like women, the
physical features of men may capture attention and provide a basis for categorization when their
masculine features are exaggerated or are hyper-stereotypic. This reasoning formed the basis of
two experiments that examined the objectification of women and men.
What Effect Does Objectification have on Perceivers’ Attention and Memory?
We reasoned that if people are reduced to their sexual body parts and functions, then
basic cognitive processes may indicate objectification. Scholars have noted that one way in
which sexual objectification becomes visible is through the “male” or objectifying gaze (Berger,
1972; MacKinnon, 1987), which is attention focused on sexual body parts. The objectifying
gaze, for example, is often apparent when the camera lens focuses on women’s sexual body parts
in the media (Mulvey, 1975; Archer, Iritani, Kimes, & Barrios, 1983). Although consistent with
women’s reports that their sexual body parts receive increased attention (Kozee, et al., 2007), the
suggestion that people may exhibit the objectifying gaze toward women has not been empirically
examined.
Based on this rationale, we hypothesized that the objectifying gaze would be directed at
women more than men. In addition, if deviation from the normative person predicts
objectification, then the objectifying gaze should be directed at women, regardless of
stereotypicality, but also hyper-stereotypic men more than stereotypic men.
Objectification theory also posits that when sexually objectified, women become fungible
or interchangeable with similar things (Haslam, 2006; Nussbaum, 1999). Just as a knife handle
is irrelevant and any knife with a sharp blade should be sufficient, a stripper’s face may be
irrelevant, and any stripper with a sexy body should be sufficient for stripping. Furthermore,
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while categorization research reveals that people are perceived as very similar to one another
once categorized on their physical features, traits or behaviors, objectification theory suggests
that women become completely interchangeable with one another on the basis of their sexual
bodies or body parts.
Based on these considerations, we hypothesized that women, regardless of
stereotypicality would be more fungible than men. In addition, if deviation from the normative
person predicts objectification, then hyper-stereotypic men should also be more fungible than
stereotypic men. To examine these hypotheses, we presented images of stereotypic and hyperstereotypic men and women and measured attention to sexual body parts compared to non-sexual
body parts in Experiment 1 and we measured memory for faces and bodies in Experiment 2.
Experiment 1
Method
Participants, Design, and Predictions
Seventy-six (39 female, 36 male) Pennsylvania State University undergraduates
participated for course credit. Participants worked at computers to complete the experiment,
which used a body part (sex relevant or irrelevant) X target feature (stereotypic or hyperstereotypic) X target gender (male or female) within-participants design. We hypothesized that
people who deviated from the normative person (i.e., stereotypic men) would be objectified, as
evidenced by a significant target feature X target gender interaction.
Procedure
After providing informed consent, participants completed a dot-probe task (MacLeod,
Mathews, & Tata 1986). Participants saw full body images of stereotypic women, hyperstereotypic women, stereotypic men, and hyper-stereotypic men. Stereotypic and hyper-
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stereotypic targets were created using Photoshop to modify the waists and chests of equally
attractive men and women. Pilot testing confirmed that, within gender, hyper-stereotypic targets
were rated as significantly more stereotypic than stereotypic targets. Although created from
photographs rated as equivalent in attractiveness at the outset, following the modification, the
bodies of hyper-stereotypic targets were rated as more attractive than stereotypic targets. The
faces of targets were equal on stereotypicality and attractiveness.
On each trial, a fixation point appeared in the middle of a screen for 1500 milliseconds
(ms) prior to the presentation of the target. Next, a stereotypic or hyper-stereotypic male or
female target appeared in the upper left, upper right, lower left, or lower right quadrant of the
screen for 200 ms. At the conclusion of the 200 ms, participants pressed the space bar if a dot
appeared on the screen where the target had been. If no dot appeared, participants refrained from
responding.
There were a total of 128 (64 dot, 64 non-dot) trials and the dot trials were created by
crossing target feature, target gender, and type of body part. Specifically, thirty-two male and
thirty-two female targets were randomly presented. Of the male and female targets, half were
stereotypic and half were hyper-stereotypic. In half of the trials, the dot appeared behind a sex
relevant part (waist). In the other half of the trials, the dot appeared behind a sex irrelevant part
(arm). If participants directed their attention to sex relevant body parts, they should be quicker to
react when the dot appeared where the sex relevant body parts were than where the sex irrelevant
body parts were.
Results
Reaction times faster than 150 ms and slower than 1500 ms were removed from analyses
to correct for outliers and reaction times were log transformed (Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park,
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1997). Log transformed reaction times for sex relevant body parts were subtracted from sex
irrelevant body parts, with higher numbers equaling more of the objectifying gaze. Log
transformed difference scores were submitted to a target feature (stereotypic or hyperstereotypic) X target gender (male or female) within-participants analysis of variance
(ANOVA)2.
Two significant effects emerged from this analysis. A main effect of target feature, F(1,
73)=13.41, prep=.99, ηp2=.16, revealed that the objectifying gaze was directed at hyperstereotypic targets (M=22.49 ms, SD=56.54) more than stereotypic targets (M= - 15.45 ms,
SD=58.10). As Figure 1 shows, the hypothesized target feature and target gender interaction,
F(1, 73)=9.01, prep=.97, ηp2=.11, revealed that the objectifying gaze was directed at hyperstereotypic male targets (M=34.22 ms, SD=88.36) more than stereotypic male targets (M= 26.03 ms, SD=87.79), F(1, 73)=16.91, prep=.996, ηp2=.19, whereas the objectifying gaze was
directed at hyper-stereotypic female targets (M=10.76 ms, SD=60.56) marginally more than
stereotypic female targets (M= - 4.86 ms, SD=63.65), F(1, 73)=3.19, prep=.842, ηp2=.04.3
Supporting our hypothesis, the objectifying gaze was directed at women, regardless of
stereotypicality, and hyper-stereotypic men more than stereotypic men. This is consistent with
our more general suggestion that people will be objectified as they deviate from the normative
person. In a second test of this suggestion, using another indicator of objectification, we
examined whether people that deviated from the normative person would be fungible in
Experiment 2. Participants completed a surprise memory task in which they matched faces and
bodies of stereotypic and hyper-stereotypic male and females. We reasoned that when people’s
bodies are interchangeable, participants should have difficulty matching people’s bodies to their
faces.
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Experiment 2
Method
Participants, Design and Predictions
Sixty-six (51 females, 15 males) Pennsylvania State University undergraduates
participated for course credit. Participants worked at computers to complete the experiment,
which used a target feature (stereotypic or hyper-stereotypic) X target gender (male or female)
within-participants design. We hypothesized that people who deviated from the normative person
would be fungible, as evidenced by a significant target feature X target gender interaction.
Procedure
After providing informed consent, participants saw full body images of six stereotypic
women, six hyper-stereotypic women, six stereotypic men, and six hyper-stereotypic men (from
Experiment 1). Each of the 24 photographs was first presented individually in random order.
Next, participants were given the surprise recognition task requiring that they match the faces
and bodies of previously seen targets. Half of the participants completed the matching task for
female targets first and vice-versa for the other half.
The bodies of the 12 previously seen men (then women, or vice-versa) were randomly
ordered and presented individually for 5000 ms. Above each body, the previously seen faces of
the same 12 targets were presented in a different random order while no response was permitted
from participants. Participants were then shown the 12 faces a second time. In response to the
presentation of each face, participants indicated a face-body match or mismatch with an
appropriate key press. Because factors like neck size and skin tone may have aided memory,
black and white images were used and faces appeared in a standard box above the bodies. This
procedure was repeated for all of one gender then the other gender. Face-body mismatches
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within a condition were divided by the number of trials, with higher numbers representing
increased fungibility.
Results
Fungibility scores were submitted to a target feature (stereotypic or hyper-stereotypic) X
target gender (male or female) within-participants ANOVA. A main effect of target feature F(1,
64)=6.99, prep=.95, ηp2=.10, indicated that hyper-stereotypic targets (M=.38, SD=.21) were more
fungible than stereotypic targets (M=.36, SD=.20). As Figure 2 shows, the hypothesized target
feature X target gender interaction, F(1, 64)=3.55, prep=.87, ηp2=.05 revealed that hyperstereotypic men (M=.38, SD=.23) were significantly more fungible than stereotypic men (M=.34,
SD=.23) F(1, 65)=10.72, prep=.98, ηp2=.14, whereas hyper-stereotypic women (M=.37, SD=.23)
and stereotypic women (M=.37, SD=.22) were similarly fungible, F<1.4
General Discussion
To our knowledge, this is the first research to examine why women are objectified and
the objectifying gaze and fungibility hypotheses derived from objectification theory.
Across two experiments, using two indicators of objectification, we found that women,
regardless of stereotypicality, were objectified. These results are consistent with objectification
theory. Consistent with our suggestion that people are objectified to the degree that they differ
from the normative person, hyper-stereotypic men were also objectified.
An alternative explanation for the findings from Experiment 2 is that participants focused
on women and hyper-stereotypic men’s faces and ignored their bodies altogether. We find this
alternative unlikely given that Experiment 1 revealed that initial attention was directed toward
the sexual body parts of women and hyper-stereotypic men. Future research should also measure
initial attention to faces and attention to faces and bodies over time.
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The present research also reveals the importance of examining the full stereotypicality
spectrum. Although deviation from the stereotypic mean has been shown to lead to
individuation for counter-stereotypic targets, the present research suggests that deviation in the
other direction – being hyper-stereotypic – may lead to increased category-based processing.
Further research should examine whether counter-stereotypic men and women are objectified.
These findings also suggest that sexual objectification may be a particular type of
categorization that involves being categorized solely on the basis of sexual body parts. Future
inquiries should consider whether correlates of categorization, like stereotyping, follow from
objectification. For example, objectification theory suggests that human traits (even stereotypic
human traits) may be less accessible, but sexual stereotypes may be more accessible when
women are objectified.
One might argue that attention and memory for bodies represent relatively benign
indicators of objectification. After all, attention and memory are only in people’s heads. These
cognitive biases, however, may lead to more insidious objectification. When objectified, people
may not only be fungible, but may also be more likely to be used as a means toward an end
(Gruenfeld, Inesi, Magee, & Galinsky, 2008). Furthermore, behavioral indicators of these biases
may cause women to reduce themselves to sexual objects, increasing eating disorders and
depression (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).
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Acknowledgements
Thank you Tom Tiegs and Anson Long for reviewing previous versions of this manuscript.
Sexual objectification 17
Figure Captions
Figure 1: The objectifying gaze (ms sex irrelevant – sex relevant body parts) as a function of
target feature and target gender.
Figure 2. Fungibility (percentage of incorrect face-body matches) as a function of target feature
and target gender.
Difference between sex-rel and sexirrel body parts (ms)
Sexual objectification 18
50
40
30
20
10
Stereo
0
-10
Male
Female
-20
-30
-40
-50
Target gender
Hyper
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Fungibility (percent incorrect)
0.44
0.42
0.4
Stereo
0.38
Hyper
0.36
0.34
0.32
0.3
Females
Males
Target gender
Sexual objectification 20
1
There are similar arguments for racial hyper-stereotypicality (e.g., Blair, Judd, Sadler, &
Jenkins, 2002; Livingston & Brewer, 2002; Maddox & Gray, 2002).
2
Participant gender did not predict objectification in Experiment 1 or 2 (see Strelan &
Hargreaves).
3
The contrast comparing the objectifying gaze directed at hyper-stereotypic men and
women (regardless of stereotypicality) to stereotypic men, F(1,73)=13.54, prep=.966, ηp2=.16,
was also significant.
4
The contrast comparing fungibility for hyper-stereotypic men and women (regardless of
stereotypicality) to stereotypic men, F(1,65)=2.40, prep=.80, ηp2=.04, was marginally significant.