As a note, while there are many real and diverse types of “male” and “female” bodies, this piece’s discussion of female bodies largely focuses on a cisgendered anatomy. The objectification of transgender and agender individuals in the media is another significant topic, which you can learn more about via studies like this one on transgender people of color’s experiences of sexual objectification, or articles like this one about how a focus on surgery reduces transgender people to just bodies.
What is sexual objectification?
Have you heard of the “Headless Women of Hollywood?” No, it’s not the name of a low-budget horror film—it’s a twitter account started by comedian Marcia Belsky, which calls attention to the Hollywood trend of featuring women’s headless bodies in their advertising materials. The goal of the project, Belsky states, “is to show how female sexuality is fragmented and sold to us in parts, so that our bodies become interchangeable for men and marketed without our pleasure in mind.”
In other words, Belsky is shining a light on the ways in which the (typically cisgendered) female body is objectified and used as a tool to sell films. While there are many types of objectification, her project looks specifically at sexual objectification, which occurs when people (often, but not always, women) are portrayed “solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own.”
Just by living in the world, you’ve likely encountered hundreds of thousands of forms of sexual objectification. In addition to non-stop movie trailers, fashion editorials, and video game posters that sexualize and depersonalize the female form, you yourself may have experienced objectification in the forms of catcalling or unwanted touching. As you can see, sexual objectification is a serious issue, one that’s especially poignant in the days of the #MeToo movement.
Why does it matter?
Unsurprisingly, treating people and their bodies like objects can have a number of negative consequences, not only on society in general but also on our individual mental health. Studies show that exposure to sexual objectification has been linked with depression, eating disorders, and low self-confidence. Further, it disrupts the development of a healthy sexual identity, leading to “diminished sexual health” as measured by condom use and sexual assertiveness. This puts individuals at greater risk of obtaining STIs or STDs and becoming pregnant.
On top of that, objectification can diminish cognitive performance. In one study, college students were asked to complete a math exam while trying on and evaluating one of two clothing items: a swimsuit, or a sweater. The study found that women who wore swimsuits performed significantly worse on the exam than those with sweaters (interestingly, men had similar scores regardless of their clothing). While it’s difficult to determine exactly why this is, researchers believe that something about asking women to evaluate themselves in the swimsuits (thereby objectifying themselves) disrupted their mental capacity. This makes sense when you think about the emotions we often associate with self-objectification, or evaluating our own bodies: shame, anxiety, and even disgust. Taking a test while those emotions are coursing through your system would almost certainly have a negative impact on your performance.
Study results aside, when we get right down to it, how many of us want to be thought of as objects for other people’s use rather than as people with unique personalities and feelings? Even those of us who enjoy sexual submissiveness deserve the right to choose that submissiveness, and to engage in it when we feel like it. So how can we stop sexual objectification in its tracks?
How we can respond
Have you ever seen the documentary “Miss Representation?” This 2011 documentary about how mainstream media contributes to societal sexism made a major impact just by bringing the issue of objectification to more people’s awareness. We too can start conversations with our friends, students, and coworkers to create an atmosphere of knowledge and empowerment.
Is your friend raving about a video game where the female characters are all passive and scantily clad? Speak up about how this is a problem. Are you a parent noticing patterns of sexual objectification on TV? The American Psychological Association recommends having an honest talk with your child about what you’re observing and why you’re concerned about it. Increasing a child’s awareness of media manipulation will make them less susceptible to it.
We can also practice critically assessing the media we consume. This doesn’t mean we have to cut all media that contains any form of objectification out of our lives—it just means we should approach it with a critical eye, distinguishing between its socialized ideals and our reality. One way of judging whether women are being objectified in film is to use the “Bechdel test”; a show or movie passes the test if, at any point, two female characters have a conversation with one another about anything other than a man (you might be surprised at how many movies flunk this exam). While the Bechdel test looks at objectification in general rather than focusing on sexual commoditization, the two tend to go hand in hand where female characters are concerned.
Finally, it’s important to be mindful of how you have been or are being impacted by objectification. This can be a difficult, painful issue to navigate, and you don’t have to do so alone. If you’re struggling to cope with the effect it has on your mood, identity, or sexual behavior, we recommend seeking guidance from a trauma-informed therapist, or a clinician who has received specific training in sexuality and/or discrimination. If you have any questions about finding the right clinician, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you seen the effects of sexual objectification in our culture? What are some ways you combat it? We would love to hear from you on Twitter (and so, we bet, would Marcia Belsky)!
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.