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Self-Objectification in Women Impairs Cognitive Functioning


Modern society conveys the idea that women should strive to be thin. Media have spent decades instilling this belief into popular culture, and many women try desperately to reach this unrealistic ideal. Relating a woman’s worth to her physical appearance and sexual appeal is known as objectification and is the catalyst for discrimination, sexual harassment, workplace inequality, and physical and sexual violence. Women who engage in self-objectification struggle with many negative psychological conditions resulting from vain attempts to achieve this ideal, including excessive exercise and extreme dieting, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, shame, and even diminished cognitive ability. When women hyperfocus on stimuli that relates to their physical appearance, they have fewer available resources to simultaneously respond to other stimuli.

Previous research has shown that this type of orienting response (OR) that occurs during self-objectification in women results in a decreased heart rate (HR). In contrast, stress caused by anxiety from one’s physical appearance results in an increased HR. Because objectification of women is an increasing problem among females in our modern culture, Dr. Melinda Green of the Department of Psychology at Cornell wanted to find out if this behavior did indeed decrease a woman’s cognitive abilities by way of OR. Green enlisted 31 females, ranging in age from 17 to 21, for her self-objectification study. The participants were divided into two groups and were placed into fitting rooms. Half of the women were instructed to dress in a bathing suit over a track suit (objectification group) while the other half were instructed to only wear the track suit (nonobjectification group). Green and her colleagues monitored the women’s heart rate immediately after they dressed and continued to assess them for several minutes.

When she compared their HR to their resting HR 1 week prior, Green found that the HRs of the objectification group were significantly lower than the HR of the nonobjectification group. She also discovered that this decreased HR was maintained when measured again 5 minutes later. Green also noticed that even though the women in the objectification group did feel stress and anxiety from wearing a swimsuit, their HRs were not higher than those of the nonobjectification group. Green believes these findings clearly demonstrate that women who self-objectify have an OR which can result in diminished cognitive capacity. Clinically, Green feels that this study emphasizes the importance of educating girls and women about the negative physical and psychological consequences of objectification. She added, “Teaching girls and women to prioritize internal qualities, to be skeptical of sociocultural forces that provide appearance-related rewards, and to resist the temptation to narrowly define one’s worth by a restricted appearance ideal are all necessary steps to promote wellness both in and outside of the fitting room.”

Green, M. A., Read, K. E., Davids, C. M. (2012). The psychophysiological consequences of state self-objectification and predictors of clothing-related distress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31.2, 194-219.

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  • Julia March 19th, 2012 at 3:12 PM #1

    Are we still really doing this to ourselves? We have fought for equality for so long in so many facets of our lives and yet we keep shooting our own selves down when now is the time that we need to step in and hold each other up! When are we ever going to learn that this does not only have to be a man’s world, but when we put these sorts of physical traits far above the other more important things in life, then it is destined to remain that way!

  • Levi March 19th, 2012 at 4:45 PM #2

    I wouldn’t treat my mom this way, so why do they need to beat themselves up over stuff that isn’t that important anyway?

  • Mel March 19th, 2012 at 10:55 PM #3

    If you wanna treat yourself this way it speaks volumes about how low a self respect you have… stop treating yourself this way and others will respect you for what you are too, not for what you wear or how ‘sexy’ you are.

  • Lorna March 20th, 2012 at 4:56 AM #4

    I have never been one to buy into all of this hype perpetuated by high fashion and society; however, I will admit that it can sometimes be hard to ignore. Even those of us with the strongest self esteem and confidence can have a hard time ignoring the expectations that are out there for women and it can be difficult to keep everything in perspective. But I have come to the conclusion that looks can only get you so far, and they will fade, but intelligence and grit are forever, and those are the things that can really take you places in life.

  • Laura Nolan March 20th, 2012 at 2:20 PM #5

    I would like to see a study that researches how much of this thought process is related to natural selection and areas of the brain hardwired to attract or appear attractive to the opposite sex to maintain species. Just as men show off there ” toughness ” to impress females. Are we battling instinct as well as media? How much of this could we actually remove from ourselves and still be true to our own nature ? It seems like we are set up to create shame for desiring to be attractive. Where is the middle ground and what is really a “healthy” attitude? Any insight would be appreciated on this.

  • Jess March 20th, 2012 at 3:48 PM #6

    Great point, Laura. How much of this is not necessarily dictated by society but is simply our instinctual drive to be the prettiest girl in the room? I mean, obviously there is more to us than that, but it could be that whole inner drive that we are battling against as well.

  • Lana.M March 21st, 2012 at 7:37 AM #7

    Its never been easy being a woman and how you look has always been high up on the list of desired qualities that people look for in a woman.

    But this needs to go. Its not ddoing good to anybody all the fashion magazines, the celebrities with their edited pictures and all the glitz. It is only making ordinary people like you and I feel bad about ourselves and also exposes us to a lot of mental stress that can sometimes be said to be more than even your work stress.We can neither give up on it completely nor can we follow it.A middle path seems like a good way ahead indeed.

  • ROCHELLE W March 21st, 2012 at 11:57 AM #8

    Seriously, this is how shallow the female race has become, that we let how we think and function be dictated by how we look or what we weigh or how we feel like we measure up against those airbrushed aliens that Hollywood and “high society” tells all of us that we should strive to emulate? Puh-leaze! I think more of myself on a BAD day than I do ever give a flying flip about what others think about me. Call me confident, but I know a fraud when I see one, and the image that we are supposedly supposed to be like is pretty fake to me.

  • stressmom March 22nd, 2012 at 12:56 PM #9

    We have all been brainwashed to think that there are only a few standards of beauty, and that if we don’t fit that mold then we are not beautiful. What I have been trying to teach my own daughter, and myself if you want to know the truth, is that there are numerous versions of beautiful, and how boring the world would be if we all fit into that one mold. I will take unique any day!

  • kissu May 13th, 2012 at 12:08 AM #10

    yaa its real women who struggling for beauty they many most of them the capacity of thinking is lowering every day because they live in 3 person and also for them the issue of making decion is the problem

  • Cassandra June 4th, 2012 at 1:08 PM #11

    The media’s role in perpetuating the self-objectification of women is an absolute abomination and learning that it has the possibility of actually diminishing one’s cognitive capabilities is astounding. The psychological effects as well as this issue in itself need to be dealt with. Society will face the consequences of this ignorance in the future, once the young women of our generation grow to have some serious self-esteem issues if more efforts aren’t made to respect the world’s women in the media.

  • Jane July 31st, 2014 at 1:27 PM #12

    In the animal kingdom, men are the ones competing for the female’s attention. That’s why in most species the males are more colorful, or have a physical trait to help them stand out (only male lions have a mane, only male peacocks have large, colorful feathers, etc) the natural order is usually that the males must strive to keep their physical appearance better than the other males. So, I highly doubt that it’s our instinct as women to compete for male affection.

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