It’s a real conversation stopper.
A woman is told she has two minutes to introduce herself to a man she doesn’t know by describing four things she likes doing the most, four things she likes doing the least, her plans for the future, and her biggest fear.
But as soon as she knows he can only see her from the neck down, she clams up.
Her feeling of “sexual objectification,” as psychologists call it, leads her to talk less and reduce her presence – in other words, she behaves like an object.
This behavior prevents a woman from presenting herself as a full, complex human being, says Diane Quinn, associate professor of psychology and one of the authors of a new study of the social impact of sexual objectification.
The study, conducted in the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was recently published online by the journal Psychological Science.
Quinn says the study has a lot of ramifications for women – for example, in a job interview, when they meet a male gaze.
“Because an object does not possess a rich personality, women may narrow their social presence by spending less time talking when objectified in social interactions. In essence, women may silence their full and complex beings and reduce their presence to their bodies,” the study reports.
The study found that “it was only women, and not men, who narrowed their presence as a result of a focus on their bodies, and it was a male’s gaze and not simply any gaze” that affected their behavior.
The study was led by Tamar Saguy, a former graduate student here in psychology who is now at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya, Israel. She had taken a course with Quinn, who studies the effects of stigma, and developed an interest in sexual objectification. Other co-authors besides Quinn are Felicia Pratto, professor of psychology, and John Dovidio, formerly on the faculty here and now at Yale University.
The researchers studied more than 200 college students in an experimental set-up. Women and men were asked to introduce themselves to a member of the opposite sex and were given the four topics to focus their thoughts. They were seated in a room and told that the other person was in an adjacent cubicle and was either hearing them by an audio feed, or seeing them on a video monitor. The videos showed either their face only, they were told, or just their body from the neck down.
While men filled up the time talking regardless of how they were presented – the face view, the body view, or by audio – women were markedly more reticent when told they were being seen only from the neck down.
The researchers were able to determine that this reaction could not be attributed to gender self-stereotyping, in which women try to make themselves appear ultra-feminine.
Women did not like being seen only from the neck down, and “when freed from this experience, and from visual inspection more generally, women did not talk less than men,” the researchers found.
While the theory of objectification has been around for nearly 20 years, and previous research has shown that sexual objectification can damage a woman’s psychological well being, this study was undertaken because little is known about its impact on social interaction, the authors said.
The researchers have not done cross-cultural studies, but in American culture, women are often depicted in media representations such as magazine ads as bodies without a head, or with an emphasis on breasts and legs, Quinn notes.
“It’s not your personality or brain, it’s just your body” is the message, even in women’s magazines, she adds.
“Women – especially young women – don’t realize the ramifications,” she says. “Women recognize that objectification is bad, but they don’t realize how it may affect their own outcomes.”