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Buying into sexism is bad for young women's body image

By Kim Belmonte

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

When I told my mom that I was going to be blogging for a feminist website, she rummaged around her attic and found a box full of 1972 Ms. Magazines – the entire first year of publication. Excited, I browsed through the stack, hoping to find that the articles in the magazine would be outdated, that many of the concerns of 1972 would have been addressed. Well, not quite. One article I found challenged traditional dating norms, arguing instead that men should not open doors, pay for meals etc.: “Men [should] not open car doors, help women in/or out, and then close the door… women get in and out of cars 20 times a day with babies and dogs. Surely they can get out by themselves at night just as easily.”[1]

Flash forward. A girlfriend recently told me, “If my date doesn’t pick up the check after dinner, there’s no second date. It’s important for a man to be a gentleman.” Now, I get just as heated as the next feminist when I’m told that a woman was not promoted at her job because of her gender, or that girls are just not as good at math as boys. It’s easy to recognize sexism when it’s violent or involves discrimination. But what about when sexism is disguised as . . . politeness?  

Researchers call it “benevolent sexism,” but we might call it chivalry — when men act in a way that puts women on a pedestal. If you think that men opening doors or offering to carry things for women conveys good manners, you wouldn’t be alone; research has found that some women think more highly of men who practice “benevolent sexism”[2].   But let’s think for a minute about where these manners come from. These little acts of “politeness” are actually rooted in traditional gender stereotypes that say men are strong and women are weak. Even more than that, they are rooted in gender stereotypes that define what is appropriate behavior for men and women in really narrow ways (i.e., women can only be feminine and men can only be masculine). What’s scarier is that these traditional stereotypes can be reinforced through sexist behavior. Violent or discriminatory sexism, called hostile sexism, is used by men in patriarchal societies to police women’s behavior. When women defy gender roles by acting in a way that is perceived as too “masculine,” men use violence to punish them and remind them of their feminine role. Benevolent sexism is simply the reverse of this; it isn’t the punishment for acting too masculine, it’s the reward for acting appropriately feminine.[3] These two types of sexism often exist together and men (or societies) that use one will generally use the other. So why do women like it when men hold boxes? If a woman is being rewarded through benevolent sexism (e.g., put on a pedestal) than at least she isn’t being punished through violent sexism. It’s easy to see how violence is wrong, but is being on a pedestal really that bad? Benevolent sexism may not be physically violent, but it has a pretty similar outcome to hostile sexism. When women are re-situated in a traditionally feminine role (whether through violence or a man holding doors) they are reminded of feminine stereotypes, like women are the weaker sex. What makes this extra tricky is that it’s hard to spot. Like I said before, the history of benevolent sexism has been lost over time and it’s hard to recognize benevolent sexism as sexist. As my friend would argue, these days it just seems like a sign of respect.

But I would imagine that even if it seems like respect, it probably doesn’t feel like respect. Part of that traditional femininity is an over-zealous focus on a woman’s appearance. Women are supposed to be both beautiful and sexually enticing to men. It seems like being reminded of this wouldn’t make a woman feel respected, but instead would make her feel self-conscious about her looks. It might even make her compare herself to other women, to see if she is pretty enough. A group of psychologists had the same type of questions and they ran a study to find out, does benevolent sexism influence how girls’ feel about their bodies? [4]

The researchers used a simple test to measure the effects of benevolent sexism on how women felt about their bodies (this is called “self-objectification”, looking at your body as men or other women might and turning yourself into an object in your own eyes). The researchers tested two groups of college women. Now, here’s the clever part. In one group, the participants simply filled out surveys measuring self-objectification. In the second group, there was a female and a male research assistant (let’s call them “Susan” and “Tim”) pretending to be participants. The researcher in charge of the group was “in” on the trick. During the experiment, she received a fake phone call that she said was from a colleague who needed a box of research materials brought to another room. She asked “Susan” (whom everyone else thought was just another participant) to carry it, at which point “Tim” stood up and said, “I’ll get that for you,” and took the box. “Susan” sat back down. After this exchange, the real participants filled out the surveys measuring self-objectification.

So, what did that little act of “politeness” do? Well, when they compared the two groups’ survey scores, they found that in the group that watched Tim’s act of chivalry, women felt a stronger sense of shame about their body. They were more concerned about their bodies not fitting into society’s standards of how a woman should look. This group was also more preoccupied with monitoring their appearance (which researchers call “body surveillance”). Basically, the group that saw Tim’s act of “politeness” examined their bodies more to see how they compared to cultural standards of beauty and felt shame about not fitting into what society says women should look like.

But what do we make of these results? How could Tim’s simple act of carrying a box make women feel bad about their bodies? The authors propose that benevolent sexism, even though it may be meant to convey respect, actually reinforces traditional gender roles. Traditional femininity emphasizes the importance of a woman looking attractive (as opposed to intelligent, witty etc.) Without being aware of it, simply being reminded of traditional gender roles can make women more concerned about how they look (as opposed to their accomplishments or personality) which translates into “body surveillance” or women checking themselves out. When women compare their bodies to cultural standards of beauty, they can feel a sense of shame if they think they don’t “measure up.” It pretty much goes without saying that this is harmful to women and girls.

So, what do we do about benevolent sexism? I’m not proposing that we should all kick the next man who holds a door for us, because, let’s be honest, it is polite to hold the door when someone is walking behind you, no matter what your gender or theirs. Instead, we need to question the “rules” about what men and women should do and say (or not say!) or how we should look. Even at a time when a lot of people say that men and women are equal, that our society is “post-feminist”, this study shows us we have to think about and work to recognize how gender norms are still operating, even in disguise, and how they may still be harmful to women. Even though feminists have been talking about it since 1972, and a lot has changed, this study shows that there is still work to be done if we want women and girls to feel good about whom we really are and the bodies in which we live.

[1]  Trahe, J. (1972). Manners for humans: Good-bye to Emily and Amy, Ms., 1(1), 39-40.

[2] Kilianski, S.E. & Rudman, L. A.(1998). Wanting it both ways: Do women approve of benevolent sexism? Sex Roles, 39, 333-352.

[3] Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complimentary justifications for gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56, 109–118.

[4] Shepard, M., Ercull, M. J., Rosner, A.,Taubenberger, L., Queen, E. F., Mckee, J. (2011). “I’ll get that for you”:The relationship between benevolent sexism and body self-perception. Sex Roles, 64, 1-8.

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