Historian/moralist John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton otherwise known simply as Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power today comes in a new form, and its expression is clearly reflected in the media with its unending capacity for hegemony. With many societies being deeply rooted in the patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity, the media, with its power to permeate its views into our subconscious mind, especially about women, has aggravated the objectification of women in our society today. The objectification theory also manifests in various forms, from the most obvious sexual objectification within the media, where women are commonly subject to being viewed as sex objects; to self-objectification where women internalize these views of objectification within themselves and thus experience a serious bout of various mental and physical health problems.
The Objectification Theory– What is it?
Objectification refers to the viewing of a person as an object with little or no regard whatsoever for the person’s feelings and “The objectification theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize and observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves.” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997, p. 173) Women are looked at all the time and not all men look at women as sexual objects, but this seems to be a rare case in our society today. Frederickson and Roberts (1997) continue to state that “…when objectified, women are treated as bodies – and in particular, as boadies that exist for the use and pleasure of others.
Certainly not all men sexually objectify women; indeed, many elect not to and are likely to have richer relationships with women as a consequence.” (p. 175). This is caused by the media, and their belief that ‘Sex Sells’, which has been proven by the various increases in viewership ratings for television programmes and sales for tabloids and magazines just by slapping on pictures of women who appear to be wearing just a little more than their own skin, with barely enough just to cover their private parts. Such objectification is rooted in our heterosexuality, and is also very evident in patriarchal societies where hegemonic masculinity is largely practiced.
Why sexual objectification of women is connected to evaluations of women for their physical attributes is hard to explain, but as stated by Fredrickson and Roberts, “Evolutionary theorists contend that women’s physical attractiveness indirectly signals reproductive value, and so evaluating women’s physical attributes has become an important criterion in men’s mate selection. Others argue that the cultural practice of objectifying female bodies originated to create, maintain, and express patriarchy.”
This shows that objectification serves many functions, such as sustaining a patriarchal society, to the ‘measurement’ of beauty or even a woman’s fertility, but the objectification theory “takes as a given that women exist in a culture in which their bodies are – for whatever reasons – looked at, evaluated, and always potentially objectified.” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997, p. 177) The objectification of women has had a great impact on our society, so much so that it“…has clearly permeated our cultural milieu; it is likely to affect most girls and women to some degree, no matter who their actual social contacts may be.”
The Objectifying Gaze
Such portrayal of women by the media instigates men to subscribe to such a point of view, and as consumers of such media, we subconsciously absorb such images into our heads, and begin to look at women with this Objectifying Gaze which usually occurs in three areas, starting with actual face-to-face interpersonal and social encounters. Frederickson and Roberts (1997) indicate that (a) Women are gazed at more than men; (b) women are more likely to feel looked at in interpersonal encounters; (c) men direct more nonreciprocated gaze toward women than vice versa, particularly in public places; and (d) men’s gazing is often accompanied by sexually evaluative complementary which tends to be most derogatory when aimed at women of color. (p. 176) In visual media, the objectifying gaze is also simulated.
This appears to be largely widespread in advertising. Stanckiwicz and Rosselli(2008) commented that “Advertising is a pervasive form of media to which people do not often give conscious attention and, therefore, its social messages are likely to remain unquestioned.” (p. 579). In the media the objectifying gaze is depicted whereby “…advertisements show that males are pictured looking directly at the female partner far more often than the reverse.” This “anchored drift”, explained by Goffman(1979) is a commonly witnessed in advertisements whereby a male is depicted staring at a female who appears to be looking off into the distance, staring into space or mentally distant, and appearing to be drifting from the scene.
“The third and perhaps most insidious manner in which objectifying gaze infuses American culture is in people’s encounters with visual media that spotlight bodies and body parts and seamlessly align viewers with an implicit sexualizing gaze. This sexually objectifying treatment of women in the visual media is certainly not limited to pornography. Analyses of mainstream films, visual arts, advertisements, television programming, music videos, women’s magazines, and sports photography each provide evidence that women’s bodies are targeted for sexual objectification more than men’s.” (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997, p.176)
Sexual Objectification in the media
The media today has come in many forms, from television programs and films to advertisements on billboards, magazines and the internet. It has become so pervasive that it has integrated itself into our daily lives, and as Stankiewicz and Roselli (2008) add, “Advertising is a pervasive form of media to which people do not give conscious attention and, therefore, its social messages are likely to remain unquestioned.” Advertisements, being so well incorporated into our daily lives are all around us. You can open a magazine or a newspaper and see an advertisement; you could walk on the street and witness advertising at work being splattered across the side of public buses or on billboards and JC Decaux boards found at most bus stops spread all over Singapore. These advertisements which we often see all the time without even having to notice, has generated a benchmark on what is attractive and desirable and what is not.
On magazines commonly found at newsstands such as For Him Magazine (FHM), Maxim, Stuff, and the recent VIP magazine by Playboy Singapore, sexual objectification of women is heavily exploited to boost sales especially with their target audience as most of the male population aged sixteen and above. The cover girls are usually found striking sexually suggestive poses dressed in bikinis, exposing their slim and slender bodies, revealing as much skin as possible. Sexual objectification, has also permeated and manifested itself in to cultures, and evidence of it is readily available in that of the popular Hip-hop culture.
From the lyrics to music videos, these rappers seem to personify as much as glorify sexual objectification by describing their lifestyles as that of pimps, filled with sex, drugs and money. Common slang terms such as ‘ho’ or ‘whore’ are used to refer to women in the Hip-hop music culture. These terms refer to women as solicitors of sex especially in music videos, and as Lim (2009) describes, “Much of Hip-hop music and videos we see and hear on television today specifically promote and perpetuate negative images of women, such as rapper Nelly’s music video “Tip-Drill” where he swipes a credit card between a woman’s buttocks. Video after video on channels like BET and MTV accosts us with images of rappers throwing money at scantily clad women.” (pp. 4 – 5)
“Viewing advertisements which explicitly show an attractive man looking at a thin woman may prime women to take a third-person perspective of their own body and consequently experience more self objectification, appearance anxiety, negative mood, and body dissatisfaction.” (Harper & Tiggemann, 2008, pp. 649-657) After being repeatedly being scrutinized and objectified long enough by the objectifying gaze, or being continually exposed to sexually objectifying media, women begin to internalize such views objectification into oneself, and aligning their primary view of themselves with the observer’s physical view of them. This self-objectification has detrimental effects to women and their general health both mentally and physically, and it could potentially lead to serious problems with oneself such as increased body shame, and appearance anxiety. Olfman (2009) indicates that “Having internalized the negative external [objectifying] gaze, girls today want a body that is hardly natural or feminine; instead it is like a boy’s body, but with a washboard stomach and big breasts.
As a result, the number one wish of girls aged 11 to 17 is to lose weight, and plastic surgery for teens increased by nearly 50 percent in two years in the late 1990s and continues to increase each year.” (pp. 63-74) This is further reinforced by the media especially in fashion and beauty magazines whose target audiences are largely women. These magazines emit the ideal that to be beautiful, you have to be thin, and as Monro and Huon (2005) add that “Media portrayed images, especially those presented in the context of advertisements for dieting and weight-altering products, promote the idea that body shape and size are flexible, and that achieving the thin ideal is relatively easy.” (p. 85).
This gives women a false belief that being able to look like the models splashed on advertisements, and when such ideals, coupled with the internalization of self objectification, creates a strain which leads to negative perceptions about their own bodies like body shame and appearance anxiety. This causes a severe drop in their self-efficacy, motivation, and may ultimately result in depression and severe eating disorders. Mental health and eating disorders as a result of self-objectification Such scrutiny on their own physical attributes causes very serious psychological problems such as low self-esteem if their ideal of at slim and slender body is not met, and it may spin of various disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder, bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, depression, sexual dysfunction, and many other issues linked with psychological disorders.
“Subclinical eating disorders are an additional threat because they may compromise health over time or emerge into full-blown eating disorders. This term is applied to women who may be symptomatic sporadically or whose symptoms do not quite meet the criteria for a full-blown eating disorder. Still, girls and women with subclinical eating disorders suffer emotional distress, including depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking, compulsive behaviours, low self-esteem, and body shame. They may also have physical problems such as gastrointestinal disruptions, impaired immune systems, menstrual irregularities, osteopenia or osteoporosis, and general poor health. (Friedman, 2006, pp. 172-176) Three commonly found health problems found in women who are objectified are depression, sexual dysfunction and eating disorders.
These are very serious health problems and they are commonly found in women who attempt and fail at conforming to the media’s portrayal of the idealized thin image. Even with the presence of plus-sized models in the media to help diminish the idealized thin image, these images are still rarely seen in the media in comparison to magazines which are saturated with models who personify the idealized thin image. Although not entirely responsible for women’s depression, sexual objectification does come into play in contributing to women’s depression.
Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) claim that “Sexual objectification fosters aduplicity of self, accompanied by recurrent and perhaps uncontrollable shame and anxiety. These experiences, coupled with reduced opportunities for pleasure, may constitute one root cause of some women’s depression” (p. 189) When sexual objectification manifests itself in more severe forms such as sexual abuse, assault, or harassment, sex becomes an unpleasant activity and may even be a reminder of such traumatic experiences.
A. Gender as a determinant
1. In 2000, the world health organization concluded that gender is the strongest determinant of mental health and status after conducting an evidence based review of women’s mental health.
2. According to Fredrickson and Roberts (1997), some women are more likely than others to see the self from the point of view of an outsider, and to regard their body as an object of other people’s gaze. The authors coined the term self-objectification to characterize the tendency to value appearance over and above ability or any other attributes (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). The objectification theory
The objectification of women, be it sexual objectification or self objectification will always remain embedded in the media of any society, especially those who are deeply rooted in patriarchy and seek to exploit women and their physical attributes for increased viewership ratings, sponsorship and most importantly monetary gain . Even though it may seem somewhat impossible now, with time the ideals and perspectives of feminists who are at ‘war’ with objectification may perhaps create enough awareness about this ‘Poison’ present in the media. Maybe then would the dream of true equality between all men and women may someday come true.
Friedman, Sandra. “The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect.” Eating Disorders 14.2 (2006): 172-76. Print. Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification Theory. Psychology of Women, 21, 173-206. Goffman, E. (1979). Gender advertisements. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Monro, F., & Huon, G. (2005). Media-portrayed idealized images, body shame, and appearance anxiety. International Journal
of Eating Disorders, 38(1), 85-90. Olfman, S. (2009). The sexualization of childhood. Westport, Conn.: Praeger. 63-74 Stankiewicz, J. M., & Roselli, F. (2008). Women as sex objects and victims in print advertisements. Sex Roles, 58, 579-589