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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