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Self-objectification discourages activism: "Objects don't object"

By Christin Bowman

*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

Here at SPARK, if there’s one thing we all love, it’s activism. We protest and picket and petition for change. We struggle to take sexy back with a fiery passion that burns deep within all of us – a SPARK that ignites us (pun very much intended).

Being an activist isn’t always easy. In fact, it usually isn’t easy. Every day, we fight against a world in which sexualization is rampant and nobody seems to care about it. As activists, we expect certain things to get in our way – it’s par for the course. A petition we start never really takes off. The editor-in-chief of a magazine refuses to meet with us. We can’t decide whether to ignore those street harassers or to give them a piece of our minds. These are barriers we know we will face, and we prepare ourselves to keep pushing anyway.

But not all barriers are so predictable. Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more women and girls protesting the sexualization they face in our society? You might think (at least I did) that being subjected to sexual objectification on a regular basis would be more than enough friction to light that spark to do something about it. Why wouldn’t everyone want to get on board?

Dr. Rachel Calogero, a researcher at the University of Kent, wondered about this too. But Calogero had a trick up her sleeve. She believed that the reason women didn’t sign up in droves to tear down the system is because they see the system as inevitable, and therefore good enough. This idea, known as system-justification theory, suggests that women come to see themselves the way society sees them, and so they justify the status quo.

What if, Calogero wondered, self-objectification (or seeing ourselves as objects) leads women to justify the system? In other words, maybe what’s going on with so many women is they’re looking at themselves from this outsider perspective, and that makes them empathize with that perspective and then makes them more likely to justify it.

Calogero took this idea one step further. In her recent study[1], she asked first, whether self-objectification leads women to justify the system, and second, whether justifying the system leads women to engage in less activism. After all, if you convince yourself that the system is just the way things are, why would you try to change it?

To test this hypothesis, Calogero did an experiment. She put women into two groups: one group was asked to write about a time in which they felt sexually objectified; the other group was asked to write about what they would do if they won $50. In this kind of study, the first group is called the experimental group and the second group is called the control group. We know that writing about being sexually objectified causes women to think about themselves as sexual objects, so being in the experimental group caused the women in that group to self-objectify more than the women in the control group. The women in both groups then answered questions about system-justification and their intentions to engage in feminist activism. By comparing these two groups, Calogero was able to find out whether self-objectification led women to justify the system more, which in turn led women to engage in less activism.

I’ll be blunt: her findings are depressing. In my activist haze, I had figured that women exposed to our damaging sexualized world would sooner or later end up right there next to me in the picket line. It’s only a matter of time, I thought. It turns out – oh the bitter irony – that our sexualized culture may do the exact opposite. Rather than create activists, the constant sexualization of women in our society actually discourages them.

Calogero’s study provides evidence that living in a world that sexualizes women and causes us to self-objectify may in fact put a psychological damper on fighting back. She argues, “Self-objectification guides women’s attention to their appearance and leads them to comply with traditional gender roles, thereby garnering their participation in the very system that maintains their disadvantaged status” (p. 317). In other words, when we focus on our appearances instead of how we feel or what we are capable of, we are using our energy to strengthen a system that harms us when we could be fighting against it! As much as I hate to say it, it makes sense. I mean, my brain freezes when I’m being ogled by random guys. Rather than being outraged that the sexualization of women in our society is teaching these men that they can stare at my body all they want, I feel like running away to hide. And sometimes, I don’t just feel bad for a minute or two – I feel bad for weeks or months, constantly thinking about how I appear to others, rather than focusing on how unacceptable it is to be sexually objectified on the regular.

Lucky for us, there is some good news. As activists, we are living, breathing proof that existing in a sexualized world doesn’t keep all of us from fighting back. But let’s be clear: being activists doesn’t make us immune to sexual objectification. After all, we are only human; I’d be lying to myself (and you, dear reader) if I said I never worried about my appearance or looked at myself from an outsider perspective. But somehow we SPARKers have still managed to find the strength and the passion to resist that oppression. Now that we know what a struggle that really is for so many girls and women who are not fighting alongside us, I think Calogero’s research should be a call for us to support each other even more. Every little piece of activism adds fuel to our fire, and every girl can be an activist stoking the flames. A friend who signs a petition is an ally in our cause. A classmate who speaks up against sexually harassing language is a champion for us. Our activist allies are all around us, just waiting to be encouraged. Our culture may be like a blanket of ash on our psyches, but when that little fire inside of me meets that little fire inside of you – inside of all activists and activists-to-be – we together can SPARK a change.

[1] Calogero, R. M. (2013). Objects don’t object: Evidence that self-objectification disrupts women’s social activism. Psychological Science, 24(3), 312-318.

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