Applied Psychology OPUS

Internalizing Beauty Ideals: The Health Risks of Adult Women’s Self-Objectification

Vera Stiefler Johnson

Objectification theory was originally advanced to provide a framework for examining women’s lived experiences in sociocultural contexts that sexually objectify the female body, through both interpersonal interactions (e.g., street harassment) and through media representations of women (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Specifically, the theory proposes that both women and girls are acculturated to internalize a third-person view of their bodies as the main way to think about themselves (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). This internalization leads to habitual body monitoring, wherein individuals monitor their bodies as they believe outside observers do, placing greater emphasis on how they look than on how they feel (Calogero, 2009). This process, termed self-objectification, has implications for women’s psychological and experiential consequences, namely, increased feelings of anxiety and shame, reduced mindfulness of internal bodily cues, and decreased “flow,” which is defined as being entirely immersed in a mental or physical pursuit (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). In their (1997) development of objectification theory, Fredrickson and Roberts suggested that these psychological consequences may result in various adverse health outcomes, such as sexual dysfunction and disordered eating.

Indeed, since the development of objectification theory, research has revealed that self-objectification relates to a host of physical and mental health risks in women, including disordered eating, issues regarding physical and sexual activity, and internalizing outcomes, including negative feelings about the body, and depression (e.g., Moradi & Huang, 2008; Tiggeman, 2011). Given the fact that some of these outcomes disproportionately impact women (e.g., depression; Cauffman, Lexcen, Goldweber, Schulman, & Grisso, 2007), a deeper understanding of self-objectification may enhance our knowledge of and approach to women’s health (Fredrickson, Noll, Roberts, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998). As such, this review of the literature seeks to explore the ways in which self-objectification relates to adult women’s physical and mental health risks.

Disordered and Restrained Eating

A substantial amount of research has established that self-objectification is positively related to bulimia and anorexia nervosa, including both restrictive and binge eating subtypes (Muehlenkamp & Saris-Baglama, 2002; Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005; Tiggemann & Kuring, 2004). In illustrating the potential mechanisms by which this relation occurs, Calogero et al. (2005) found that self-objectification is directly linked to drive for thinness, a motivational variable that underlies high-risk dieting, using a sample of women with clinically diagnosed eating disorders (Striegel-Moore, Schreiber, Pike, Wilfley, & Rodin, 1995). In this particular study, self-objectification was related to the internalization of beauty ideals represented in the media (Calogero et al., 2005). This finding, as well as others that have established a link between self-objectification and disordered eating (e.g., Muehlenkamp & Saris-Baglama, 2002; Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005), is important in that it places women’s disordered eating in a sociocultural context (Noll & Fredrickson, 1997). Traditionally, disordered eating has been examined and treated by focusing solely on the individual or the family (Noll & Fredrickson, 1997). However, recent work indicates that disordered eating can be attributed, in part, to women’s self-objectification that occurs as a result of their experiences within cultural contexts that continuously sexualize their bodies (Calogero et al., 2005; Noll & Fredrickson, 1997).

Beyond having implications for women with eating disorders, self-objectification also leads to restrained eating in otherwise healthy women (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998; Muehlenkamp & Saris-Baglama, 2002). For example, Fredrickson et al.’s (1998) experimental study asked undergraduate women to wear either a sweater or a swimsuit and examine themselves in a mirror, after which they completed a taste test including cookies and chocolate milk. The researchers hypothesized that wearing the swimsuit would induce self-objectification, which would then lead to increased levels of restrained eating. Indeed, the women who tried on the swimsuit ate less of the cookie, despite reporting that they liked the cookie as much as women in the sweater group (Fredrickson et al., 1998).

It is important to note that although some studies have established a direct link between self-objectification and disordered or restrained eating (e.g., Noll & Fredrickson, 1998), others have found that the link is mediated by internalizing symptoms such as body shame, depression, and appearance anxiety (i.e., the fear of negative judgment that occurs during overall appearance evaluation; Calogero, 2009; Calogero et al., 2005; Muehlenkap & Saris-Baglama, 2002; White, 2013). This is in keeping with objectification theory, which posits that self-objectification results in experiential consequences such as shame and anxiety, which then lead to negative mental and physical health outcomes (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Specifically, several studies have found that body shame, defined as the feeling of worthlessness that occurs when comparing one’s own body to an unrealistic beauty ideal, mediates the relation between self-objectification and disordered eating (Calogero, 2009; Greenleaf, 2005; Greenleaf & McGreer, 2006; Tiggemann & Williams, 2012). Other studies have found that the relation between self-objectification and disordered eating is mediated by depressive symptoms (e.g., Muehlenkap & Saris-Baglama, 2002) and appearance anxiety (e.g., Greenleaf & McGreer, 2006).

Physical and Sexual Functioning

In the same way that self-objectification plays a role in women’s eating patterns, self-objectification has been found to relate to the ways in which women use and think about their bodies. Specifically, research has shown that self-objectification is a factor in both women’s approaches to physical activity (Greenleaf, 2005; Melbye, Tenenbaum, & Eklund, 2007) and their sexual engagement and behavior (Sanchez & Kiefer, 2007; Tiggemann & Williams, 2012).

Self-objectification significantly predicts physical activity for women, such that women who engage in more self-objectification are less likely to be physically active (Greenleaf, 2005; Melbye et al., 2007). This finding may imply that women high in self-objectification try to avoid activities that could potentially elicit the gaze of others and cause social physique anxiety (i.e., anxiety about one’s body composition, shape, or size; Hart, Leary, & Rejeski, 1989; Melbye et al., 2007). When women high in self-objectification do exercise, they are more likely to cite appearance and weight-related reasons for doing so (McDonald &Thompson, 1992), suggesting that they feel pressured to change their bodies to meet the societal ideal of thinness. Indeed, women high in self-objectification are significantly more likely to use cardio machines to burn calories than women low in self-objectification, who prefer to take part in physical activities that promote self-awareness (e.g., yoga; Melbye et al., 2007).

Further investigation of the relation between self-objectification and women’s physical behavior reveal a paradox: women high in self-objectification prefer to exercise in private settings where they are less likely to be exposed to others’ gazes (Melbye et al., 2007), yet make more of an effort to appear attractive to outside observers by wearing tight or revealing exercise apparel (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005). These findings indicate that women attempt to resist the state of self-objectification, and the anxiety and shame that accompanies it, by either avoiding situations in which self-objectification could potentially be induced or by striving to meet cultural ideals of beauty (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005).

The effect of self-objectification on women’s physical behavior translates to more intimate experiences as well. Specifically, self-objectification promotes various sexual issues for women (Sanchez & Kiefer, 2007; Tiggemann & Williams, 2012), particularly for those that express feeling concerned about their appearance within sexual contexts (Sanchez & Kiefer, 2007). Women who engage in self-objectification are less likely to want to be involved with sexual activity because they experience a reduction in the physical appeal of sex (Roberts & Gettman, 2004). When they do engage in sexual activity, they are more likely to report low sexual self-esteem and are less likely to extract pleasure from the experience (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Some researchers suggest that this may occur because the process of constantly attending to the body, how it is being perceived by a partner, and whether or not they are judging it, leads to higher self-consciousness, body shame, and appearance anxiety during sexual activity (Steer & Tiggemann, 2008), which then leads to various sexual issues. Overall, these findings endorse Fredrickson and Roberts’ (1997) proposal that self-objectification results in shame and anxiety, which then produces self-consciousness during activities that make women think about their bodies. Interestingly, self-consciousness within sexual contexts has been found to be higher in women who are not in a stable relationship, suggesting that women in relationships may feel less judged during sex, or alternately, that women expect to be judged, particularly by those who may not be personally close to them (Steer & Tiggemann, 2008).

While self-objectification has certain implications for women’s thought processes and behavior regarding physical and sexual activity, self-objectification also relates to women’s feelings about their bodies, including about functions that are inextricably tied to the female body, such as menstruation and breastfeeding.

Feelings about the Body

In keeping with objectification theory, the habitual body monitoring that characterizes self-objectification affects the ways in which women affectively regard their own bodies (Breines, Crocker, & Garcia, 2008). For example, one qualitative study found that a sample of self-identified feminist women described themselves as persistently attending to their bodies, which they felt were “disciplined” by others through looks, remarks, and actions (Rubin, Nemeroff, & Russo, 2004, p. 34). Through this process, they experienced feelings of ugliness, shame, and vulnerability (Rubin et al., 2004), supporting the idea that self-objectification can decrease women’s positive feelings about their bodies (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Muehlenkamp, Swanson, & Brausch, 2005).

Further studies have shown that self-objectification predicts decreased self-esteem regarding the body (Breines et al., 2008; Calogero & Thompson, 2009), and higher body shame (Calogero, 2009; Calogero & Thompson, 2009) and dissatisfaction with the body (Muehlenkamp et al., 2005; Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005). One study found that, for Black women, body monitoring, specifically regarding their skin tone, was related to increased feelings of dissatisfaction and shame, not only with their skin tone, but with their bodies in general (Buchanan, Fischer, Tokar, & Yoder, 2008).

Further, women who report higher levels of self-objectification feel more disgust and shame towards natural bodily functions such as menstruation and breastfeeding (Johnston-Robledo, Sheffield, Voigt, & Wilcox-Constantine, 2007; Roberts, 2004; Roberts & Waters, 2004). Specifically, those who engage in higher levels of self-objectification tend to believe that breastfeeding and lactation are unattractive, and that these processes cause damage to women’s bodies and decrease the likelihood that they will be seen as sexual beings (Johnston-Robledo, Wares, Fricker, & Pasek, 2007). In addition, those who internalize a more objectified view of their bodies are likely to have negative feelings towards their menstrual cycles (e.g., humiliation, shame, contempt, and irritation; Roberts, 2004), even going so far as to regard themselves as “untouchable” during menstruation (Roberts & Waters, 2004, p. 6).

These beliefs are not new, nor are they unique. In fact, they may reflect age-old, cross-cultural attitudes that women, because of their bodily functions, are more closely connected to nature and are, as a result, inferior, dangerous, and disgusting (Roberts, 2004; Roberts & Waters, 2004). Even today, menstruation is marketed as unsanitary and unattractive, which has caused women to feel both distanced from and contemptuous towards their own bodies (Roberts & Waters, 2004). Evidently, cultural ideals that are exceedingly intolerant of women’s natural bodies cause women to internalize these views and engage in self-objectification regarding their biological functions, which ultimately results in negative feelings about their bodies (Roberts, 2004). Beyond playing a role in women’s feelings about their own bodies, self-objectification also has implications for an arguably more severe internalizing outcome, depression.

Depression

Research has consistently found that women are more likely than men to experience depression (Cauffman et al., 2007). While previous attempts to understand this discrepancy in risk for depression have focused heavily on female biology and individual personality, Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) suggest that objectification theory may encompass a wider range of factors, by highlighting that women’s persistent, negative experiences as the result of self-objectification may partially contribute to women’s risk for depression. As such, researchers have started to investigate the role of self-objectification in depression (e.g., Muehlenkamp & Saris-Baglama, 2002).

Indeed, studies show that self-objectification is positively related to depression (Miner-Rubino, Twenge, & Fredrickson, 2002; Muehlenkamp & Saris-Baglama, 2002; Tiggemann & Williams, 2012), as well as depressed mood, which is a symptom of depression (Breines, Crocker, & Garcia, 2008; Tiggemann & Kuring, 2004). Further, the link between self-objectification and depression may play a role in women’s likelihood of engaging in self-harm (Muehlenkamp, Swanson, & Braush, 2005). Namely, in a sample of undergraduate women, Muehlenkamp et al. (2005) discovered that the negative body regard that resulted from self-objectification led to depressive symptoms which, in turn, led to increased risk for self-harming behaviors.

Importantly, some researchers posit that the relation between self-objectification and depression may exist because women who engage in more self-objectification have more body dissatisfaction, which is linked to depression (Joiner, Wonderlich, Metalsky, & Schmidt, 1995). Others maintain that previous studies that found a direct relation between self-objectification and depression are confounded as they did not include negative body regard as a mediating variable, given new findings that negative body regard fully mediates the relation between self-objectification and depression (Muehlenkap et al., 2005).

Conclusion

The body of research explored in this literature review indicates that objectification theory is a valuable tool for understanding the needs of women, particularly with regard to the ways in which self-objectification contributes to physical and mental health risks. Self-objectification is an important factor in women’s physical and mental health risks, including risks that have been found to be disproportionately prevalent amongst women, such as disordered eating (e.g., Striegel-Moore et al., 2008), sexual dysfunction (e.g., Tiggemann, 2011), and depression (e.g., Cauffman et al., 2007).

That being said, previous research on the interactions between constructs of objectification theory, including self-objectification, has not encompassed enough diversity in populations, specifically in terms of race and sexual orientation. While some studies have shown that objectification theory is generally helpful in understanding the physical and mental health outcomes of diverse populations of women (e.g., Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004), others indicate that objectification theory may need to be revised to fit certain populations (e.g., Kozee & Tylka, 2006; Haines et al., 2008). For example, one study found that the negative experiences associated with self-objectification were par  ticularly strong in heavy, minority women (i.e., those that deviated most from stereotypical White beauty ideals; Frederick, Forbes, Grigorian, & Jarcho, 2007). Other studies found that the objectification theory provided a poor fit in a sample of lesbian participants, because objectification constructs were experienced differently amongst lesbian women than heterosexual women (Kozee & Tylka, 2006; Haines et al., 2008).

In addition to addressing the need for population diversity, future research should seek to understand the role of self-objectification in women whose occupations require the use of their bodies (e.g., dancers, exercise instructors, prostitutes). Previous research has found that dancers, including exotic dancers, are more likely to engage in self-objectification and body-surveillance as compared to non-dancers (Downs, James, & Cowan, 2006; Tiggemann & Slater, 2001) whereas aerobics instructors score lower on the two constructs as compared to aerobic participants (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005). Given this disparity in findings, it is important to understand how women’s occupations may either induce self-objectification or potentially function as a protective factor against it.

The implications of developing this body of research are far-reaching. Contributions in our understanding of self-objectification will inform the ways in which educators and practitioners approach women’s mental and physical health, by placing their lived experience in the context of patriarchal societies that dehumanize them. Feminist psychologists may ultimately be able to use a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which self-objectification affects women to build tools of resistance and cultural scrutiny (Rubin et al., 2004). For example, given findings that self-objectification relates to negative feelings about menstruation and breastfeeding, interventions targeted at reducing the stigma surrounding these entirely natural processes may need to be developed (Roberts & Waters, 2004). Additionally, given that the link between self-objectification and depression relates to a loss of self, therapeutic approaches can address this by challenging women’s internalization of a third-person view as the primary way to think about the self (Roberts & Waters, 2004).

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