A Surprising Impact of the Male Gaze on Political Activism

Self-objectification can disrupt civic action.

Posted Jun 17, 2019

 Ian Dooley/Unsplash
Source: Ian Dooley/Unsplash

You have such pretty eyes, lustrous hair, an intoxicating smile, sexy hips, and the list goes on.

Through media representations and direct experience, women and girls learn their appearance is social currency.

They are seen through the Male Gaze via social encounters, involving gazing at women’s body parts and sexual comments, as well as exposure to visual media that spotlights women’s bodies and body parts, depicting them as the target of a non-reciprocated male gaze.

Exposure to idealized images has been shown to lead to self-objectification – the process of habitual body monitoring, wherein women constantly watch their own bodies as they believe outside observers do.

Over time, as women place more attention on their appearance, they began to internalize this observer view of their bodies as their primary identity and end up placing greater value on how they look than how they feel or what they do.

The perils of self-objectification have been well-documented: loss of body sensation, cognitive disruptions, increased risk for depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Specifically, when women are prompted to take a self-objectifying perspective, they experience anxiety about their appearance and physical safety, along with reduced mindfulness of internal bodily cues, and decreased ability to focus on immediate mental or physical pursuits. 

Self-objectification leads women come to believe that their appearance is more important than their competence. Ironically, self-objectification requires considerable emotional and cognitive resources.

Devoting so much time and attention to one’s appearance means having less resources for other concerns – like developing competencies. The amount of time is one thing, but how does self-objectification impact action?

Self-objectification has been found to have some interesting political implications. A research project called “Objects Don’t Object” found that self-objectification disrupts women’s social activism (Calogero, 2013).

The researchers found that the more women self-objectified – that is, said they valued their appearance over their competence as a general attitude toward themselves on a questionnaire – the less likely they were to be willing to do things to promote women’s rights and the more likely they were to be content with the status quo. 

The researchers wanted to find out if this was a trait that only some women had – or whether they could experimentally induce self-objectification and get the same result. So in a second study, they tried to activate self-objectification by asking female participants to recall a time when they experienced the “male gaze” in which they felt sexually-objectified.

Under these conditions of induced objectification, they were less likely to support women's rights issues, and were more likely to think things for women now are how they should be. Together, these studies suggest, interestingly, that the cultural emphasis placed on women's appearance, and the frequent sexual gazes they experience from men, make it less likely for women to support their own equal rights.

In another study, Calogero et al. (2107) wanted to delve into the underlying belief of beauty as social currency. Perhaps believing that beauty is a primary currency leads women to think that their physical appearance will simply have more impact than their actions.

In this study, 94 ethnically diverse women attending a small liberal arts college in the southeastern United States completed questionnaires including the Beauty as Social Currency Questionnaire developed by Forbes, et al., 2007, that measured endorsement of Western beauty ideals and practices. Participants rated their agreement with the following 5 statements:

1. It is more important for a woman to be pretty than to be smart.

2. The most important asset a woman can have is her looks.

3. A woman should not expect others to respect her unless she is slender.

4. If a woman cannot do a good job of taking care of her appearance, she probably cannot be trusted to do a good job at anything else.

5. In most situations, a woman will get further by being attractive than by being competent.

Engagement in gender activism was measured as the degree to which participants engaged in social activism on behalf of women during the preceding six months. Participants rated seven items representing gender-based social activism, such as, “Circulated a position (in person or online) related to a women’s rights cause and gender equality.” The results found that believing in beauty as currency, self-objectification, and support for the gender status quo were negatively associated with gender activism.

Yet, recent sociopolitical developments like the #metoo movement show women who have been sexually mistreated can be galvanized to take action for women’s rights and causes. How do we make sense of it in light of these findings?

Another recent study (Shephard and Evans, 2019) investigated the possible role of sexually objectifying behaviors in motivating women to try to tackle this issue through collective action, such as signing petitions or engaging in protests.

Across two studies, the researchers tested whether experiencing sexually objectifying behaviors motivates women to be willing to engage in collective action against sexual objectification via feelings of anger toward women being the target of such actions as in group-based anger.

In both studies, female participants rated the extent to which they had been the target of sexually objectifying behaviors, their feelings of group-based anger, and their willingness to engage in collective action against sexual objectification. Being sexually objectified was positively associated with the willingness to engage in collective action and this relationship was mediated by feelings of group-based anger.

This pattern suggests that experiencing numerous instances of sexual objectification is likely to result in women feeling group-based anger and that this anger, in turn, promotes collective action against sexual objectification. Research suggests that this is one process through which being sexually objectified promotes a willingness to engage in collective action.

How do we account for the discrepancy in findings?

In the latter studies, the frame of reference is different: it is about being sexually objectified rather than taking on the objectification oneself. That is, the women who took action were aware of being sexually objectified but they didn’t take it on as part of their identity – instead they identified with other women who had the same experience of sexual objectification.

Of course, this was partly due to the way that the questions were asked in the different studies. The first set of studies didn’t ask women if they were angry – and so didn’t draw women’s attention to that aspect of objectification.

One thing is clear: how women see themselves deeply impacts their political behavior. Women can be more powerful identifying as a group via shared experiences than taking on the identity given to them by others who don’t have their best interests at heart.

Copyright 2019 by Tara Well.

References

Calogero, R. M. (2013). Objects don’t object evidence that self-objectification disrupts women’s social activism. Psychological Science, 24, 312–318. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612452574.

Calogero, R. M., Tylka, T. L., Donnelly, L. C., McGetrick, A., & Leger, A. M. (2017). Trappings of femininity: A test of the “beauty as currency” hypothesis in shaping college women’s gender activism. Body Image, 21, 66–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2017.02.008.

Forbes, G.B., Collinsworth, L.L., Jobe, R.L.,Braun, K.D.,& Wise,L.M. (2007). Sexism, hostility toward women, and endorsement of beauty ideals and practices: Are beauty ideals associated with oppressive beliefs? Sex Roles, 56,265–273. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9161-5

Shepherd, L. & Evans, C. (2019). From Gaze to Outrage: The Role of Group-Based Anger in Mediating the Relationship between Sexual Objectification and Collective Action Sex Roles. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01054-8