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Shifting the objectifying gaze: Focusing on women's personality disrupts sexual objectification

By Marisa Ragonese

I had a baby three summers ago, and she’s been hanging around me a lot ever since. One of the best parts about this whole kid thing, at least for me, is the radical shift from how men used to look at and treat me, and the way they do now. Most notably, the dudes I encounter in the day-to-day have generally stopped ogling my body, complimenting my body, insulting my body or otherwise harassing me. NOW they either look me in the eye when they talk to me or, if they’re walking past me on the street, they smile politely or ignore me completely. It’s amazing. Since I found the constant experience of being reduced to and evaluated according to the size of my breasts and body parts really degrading and psychologically disorientating, it’s been one of the coolest and unexpected perks of motherhood, this invisibility cloak, this pass, this limited access to being a human in the eyes of men. Sometimes I even feel like a whole person.

Despite my newfound freedom from the harassment I used to experience on the regular, I still worry about losing my immunity, I still worry about all of the girls and women who don’t feel free to move through public spaces. I still wonder: why do men do it? Why do men who have lots of women in their lives, who may even believe that they see these women as full human beings, objectify women? Why do so many women act like it’s normal or even desirable? I mean, what’s really going on? I think that one of the coolest things about feminist research is its ability to pull sexism apart and take a really close look at why it’s happening without all of those “boys will be boys” and “you know how women and men REALLY are” stereotypes muddying the waters and blocking the airwaves. I mean, call me uptight, but I like the truth. And that’s why I’m obsessed with research.

Here at the SPARK research blog, we dedicate a fair amount of time to writing about research on objectification. So, stereotypes aside, why do people objectify women’s bodies? Researchers Gervais, Holland and Dodd[1] decided it was high time to answer this question, and it’s awesome that they thought to do it, because there’s barely any research on why so many men (and women) look at women’s body parts in gross and sexualizing ways that often don’t involve paying attention to our faces.

Research already teaches us that people tend to look at someone’s face when meeting and interacting with them because faces tell us a lot about who someone is: the tribes they run with, why they’re talking to or approaching us, and their general physical, mental and emotional state. Because someone’s face tells us so much about a person, we also tend to linger on it. However, according to objectification research (and many women’s personal experiences) (including mine) there’s a lot of lecherous non-face-looking going on all the time, especially during tank-top season. (Or any day you’re walking around all female and stuff….).

Psychologists argue that people can focus on appearances (which means paying more attention to someone’s body) or focus on their personality (by focusing on their face)- it’s a choice, and if people (men AND women) are instructed to size a woman up based on her body, they’ll objectify her more. If they’re encouraged to see how she measures up based on her personality, they’ll objectify less. So, the researchers wanted to know whether people would still objectify a woman’s body as much if they were instructed to focus on and evaluate her personality.

They did an experiment to see if they were right. They showed college students 10 pictures of women, and asked some of them what they thought about their personalities, and others what they thought about their appearances. They tracked the college students’ eye movements so they could measure where people looked and for how long. And you know what? Their hunch was right.

They found that the study participants (men AND women) looked at women’s faces more and their chests and waists less when they were asked to focus on the personality of a woman in the photo. In other words, their study confirmed other research that found that when people are interested in actually getting to know someone, they focus less on her body and more on her face. To me, this is such an important finding because it illustrates that those stereotypes about men “needing” to evaluate women in sexually objectifying ways – that they just can’t help it (it’s nature, biological, etc.) – are total propaganda crap. It’s more like: when men (AND women) are taught to evaluate the attractiveness of women all the time, like we are through our culture, it creates the conditions that lead to sexually objectifying women. So it’s not that men can’t help it. It’s more like a culture of sexualization is HELPING all of us to objectify women by training men (AND women) to always evaluate a woman’s attractiveness rather than her personality. We’re a bunch of social face-watchers, people. The leering isn’t natural- it’s learned.

So the next time you’re dealing with someone who insists on watching your chest, or someone who insists that men can’t help themselves, how’s about re-directing their gaze right over here, to the scientific evidence that shows that we look and see women in sexual ways because we’re being taught to?  Because you shouldn’t have to have a baby or an invisibility cloak or be a part of any tribe or race or class, and you shouldn’t have to fight a culture of lies based in stereotypes and myths.

You shouldn’t have to do anything at all, in order to be treated like a human being.

[1] Gervais, S. J., Holland, A. M., & Dodd, M. D. (2013). My eyes are up here: The nature of the objectifying gaze toward women. Sex roles, 69(11-12), 557-570.

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