The Effects of Sexism on Women’s Body Image

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.


  1. 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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  • Rafael

    January 9th, 2013 at 9:17 PM

    What is benevolent sexism?

  • Connie

    January 9th, 2013 at 9:23 PM

    From what I understand, benevolent sexism is appreciating women for playing traditional household roles, but limiting women to those roles. It’s kind of the idea that women need protecting rather than acknowledging that they are equals in the home and work place.

  • Jasmine

    January 9th, 2013 at 9:26 PM

    It really bothers me when people assume that women filling traditional roles is bad for society. If a woman is happy and feels fulfilled working in a traditional role, what exactly is so wrong with that? I’m not saying women should be forced to work either inside or outside of the home. It seems to me that it is sexist to say a woman should do either one. We are all made to do different things, and so some will land in the role of home maker and be very happy with it.

  • Aoife

    January 9th, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    I have no idea how we’ll ever overcome this phenomenon in our society. Unless and until people quit buying sexist materials, this will stay the same. Since sex sells, people will continue to buy, so nothing changes. It really is quite depressing.

  • richard

    January 9th, 2013 at 10:21 PM

    all we see are perfect women in is bound to create a sort of an illusion for all the women out there,thereby making them hate their ‘imperfect’ bodies..what they do not realize that these images are often edited to bring that bit of perfectness in them and that the models they so adore on those glossy magazine pages may well be someone they would hate to see in real life!

  • hannah

    January 9th, 2013 at 11:55 PM

    i’ve seen perfectly fine young girls say they hate their bodies.thats mainly because they want themselves to have the same level of perfection they see portrayed in media.I tell them wait till youre past 30 and then see how things look!its ridiculous that even the girls with well toned bodies find themselves not good enough due to this wrong portrayal!

  • Krista

    January 10th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    Well, one couldn’t have thought that sexism would have a positive impact on the way we feel about ourselves would they? It is so hard to try to belivee one thing about your body and to love it for who you are and what it is, but then all of the messages that we get from society tell us that we shouldn’t feel good about it unless it meets this certain narrow set of criteris that most of us could never hope to fulfill. And I know we all want more for our young daughters, but sometimes it actually feels pretty hopeless fighting against all of the other overt messages that they are getting all the time.

  • Dylon

    January 10th, 2013 at 11:03 AM

    While the effects of sexism are pretty obvious on women,nobody ever speaks of the effects it can have on men.Men see those wafer thin models and what do they want and expect?The same from their partner.If they don’t get it,which obviously happens because most of it is so fake,.we are disappointed.The relationship suffers,the partner is disappointed and it is a complete meltdown.

    This ridiculous idea of selling through sex is sending our relationships head down a path that only seems to be getting us into trouble,with ourselves and with others.

  • Arianna

    January 10th, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    Most women already have issues with self esteem and our looks. Do you think that we really need just one more thing added on top of that to make us feel even worse?

  • tiara

    January 11th, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    although it is not possible to remain completely unaffected by people and things around us,the more we are in control and autonomous in what we eat,wear and everything else,the more happier it makes us feel!I definitely feel much happier and better about myself when i take my own decisions than when i am influenced by an external agent – be it a friend,a family member or an advert on the feels good to choose things for yourself.and when you know you are not a puppet to what’s on TV and the billboards it gives that rush of a good feeling that I so love :D

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