“Look in my eyes. I said in my eyes!”: Antecedents and Consequences of (Self-) Objectification

Physical appearance is one of the primary cues for individuals living in a society guided by a vast “sexual market” (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). Physical appearance also influences people’s achievements in areas that are not directly related to the sexual domain, such as their career (e.g., Register & Williams, 1990) or their educational success (e.g., Crandall, 1991, 1995).

Beauty standards have become so severe in recent years (e.g., Katzmarzyk & Davis, 2001) that people can rarely expect to conform to them, and may suffer health-wise if they do (e.g., Monro & Huon, 2005; Moradi, Dirks, & Matteson, 2005). Moreover, judgments of physical appearance are influenced by culturally shared standards (e.g., Engeln-Maddox, 2006). In Western society, these standards are communicated through images of sexualized bodies. In our daily lives, we are indeed confronted with advertisements depicting individuals as sex objects. This paper aims to examine how these images influence the way people look at and perceive bodies, including their own.

Objectification and Sexual Objectification

Objectification is usually defined as focusing on physical appearance rather than on personality. This objectification or appearance focus may be applied to others (e.g., Heflick & Goldenberg, 2009; Heflick, Goldenberg, Cooper, & Puvia, 2011) or the self (see section on self-objectification). Heflick and Goldenberg (2009) were the first to demonstrate that perceivers attributed less humanness and less competence to a female celebrity and viewed her as similar to an object when focusing on her appearance as compared to her personality.

Sexual objectification is a specific type of appearance focus that is centered on the sexualized body. Sexual objectification consists in considering an individual as a body, or body parts, available for satisfying others’ needs and desires (Bartky, 1990). In social psychology, this concept has been recently operationalized by highlighting either the sexualized body (i.e., sexual objectification condition) as opposed to the face (e.g., Loughnan et al., 2010). Indeed, the face symbolizes the humanness and personhood of the target, whereas the sexualized body does not (Archer, Iritani, Kimes, & Barrios, 1983). Thus, focusing on the sexualized body of an individual could lead to dehumanization and diminished moral concern. The following section details these consequences.

Sexual objectification, dehumanization and moral treatment

It has been shown that the media primarily focus on body parts rather than the face when depicting women (i.e., face-ism bias), whereas this bias is usually absent or markedly reduced when men are portrayed in advertisement (e.g., Archer et al., 1983). Recent studies suggest that sexual objectification could cause negative social perception. For example, Loughnan and his colleagues (2010) have shown that people depersonalize men and women when they are portrayed as a body wearing a swimsuit or underwear (i.e., when they are sexually objectified) compared to when their face is highlighted (see also Gurung & Chrouser, 2007).

Moreover, Vaes and his colleagues have demonstrated that sexual objectification leads to animalize female targets (Vaes, Paladino, & Puvia, 2011). When completing a reaction time task requiring the categorization of words (i.e., animal vs. human words) and pictures (i.e., sexualized bodies vs. faces), people matched pictures to uniquely human characteristics less quickly than to animal characteristics, but only when the targets were sexualized women. These data suggest that people perceive women as closer to animals when their sexualized body is highlighted rather than their face. These authors have also shown that both men and women dehumanize sexually objectified women, but for different reasons. Women dehumanize sexualized female targets because they consider them as a disliked subcategory whereas men do so when a sex- goal is activated (Vaes et al., 2011).

Furthermore, Cikara, Eberhardt and Fiske (2011) have shown that men with higher hostile sexism scores are more likely to associate sexualized women (e.g., wearing a swimsuit) to first person verbs and non-sexualized (e.g., clothed) women to verbs at the third person. Given that attributing third person verbs denotes agency, these results suggest that sexualization diminishes attribution of agency.

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