Sexism is overtly exhibited in nearly every aspect of modern society. Women and adolescent girls, in particular, are especially likely to experience the deleterious effects of sexism. Whether it is a model in a magazine, an actress on television, or a mannequin in a store window, images of how women should look, dress, act, and even react are everywhere. Adhering to society’s unrealistic and often varied models of the ideal woman makes it difficult for women to find and accept their own identities and bodies. In fact, the sexist beliefs associated with women, both negative and positive, have been linked to numerous physical and mental health issues for women, including depression, anxiety, binging, purging, and anorexia. Young women are also heavily influenced by the opinions and judgments of those closest to them, including their family members, friends, and coworkers. Understanding how the beliefs of others and internalization of those beliefs affects a woman’s body image is necessary in order to help women overcome any challenges related to self-worth, self-esteem, and positive self-image.
Debra L. Oswald of the Department of Psychology at Marquette University in Wisconsin wanted to explore the negative and positive (hostile and benevolent) sexist attitudes toward young women and how these attitudes affected their beliefs about their own body images. In one study, Oswald assessed how a father’s benevolent sexist beliefs, those that positively affirmed the traditional female role and appearance, shaped daughters’ self-image. In a second study, Oswald looked at how subtle and overt hostile sexism affected self-image. She found that overall, hostile sexism from peers, friends, and family members led to negative body esteem. However, hostile sexism from parents did not. Oswald also discovered that a father’s benevolent sexism was directly linked to positive body esteem in daughters. This finding is concerning because it suggests that although young women may feel good about themselves when they conform to traditional female roles, when they step out of those roles, they may be met with hostile sexism which could decrease their sense of self-esteem and negatively affect body image. The results of this study also imply that sexism contributes greatly to a woman’s physical and mental self-image. “We hope this research highlights the complexity of these cultural beliefs and encourages researchers and clinicians to take this wider cultural context into consideration when examining and treating women’s body esteem issues,” said Oswald.
- Oswald, Debra L., Stephen L. Franzoi, and Katherine A. Frost. Experiencing sexism and young women’s body esteem. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 31.10 (2012): 1112-137. Print.
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