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Listen to your heart: Focusing on your heart beat can protect against self-objectification for women

By Marisa Ragonese

*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

Halloween—obviously the best holiday in the history of the world—is coming our way. Let’s talk about some recent heart-racing research, which is almost as fun as peeking under that thinned-out curtain between the living and the dead, or, let’s be real, trick-or-treating (My guess is most of us can get away with it until at least 17, with the right costume and the right attitude.)

In all seriousness, I think that life in a female body can be an anxiety-provoking experience and not in a fun way; this whole being-a-woman-thing is not for the faint of heart. We live in a society that won’t shut up about how equal we all are but is still consumed with assigning value to people (especially women) based on how we look and how not-fat we are, and most of us just don’t make the cut. It’s easy to see how a girl’s whole sense of bodily self can get wrapped up in looking “right” instead of paying attention to what else she can do with her body, like learning how to hold a hammer (or a pen!) in order to smash the system. So yeah. Living in a female body can definitely be terrifying – but not in the fun way that Halloween is. And we’re not just putting on a costume for one night. We’re expected to wear this obnoxious “perfect-looking woman” costume every single day. It’s horrifying, it’s terrible, it totally sends some girls straight into the arms of anorexia, self-loathing, and self-injury, and I’ve been there. It’s not my idea of fun. Not like getting to eat Snickers *and* Kit Kats * and* Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in the span of like one hour while watching The Nightmare Before Christmas.

So, research has already shown that when you buy the lie about your body or are force-fed it enough, you may start to fixate on bodily “flaws.”[1][2] But is the way we see the outsides of ourselves (clearly and compassionately or not so much) connected to how accurately we can figure out what’s going on inside our bodies?  

Ask psychologists Vivien Ainley and Manos Tsakiris. They did a study[3] to see if self-objectification in women (how self-consciously women felt about the outside of their bodies) was connected to their “interoceptive awareness” (how much women paid attention to what was going on inside their bodies). They measured women’s interoceptive awareness by having them count their heartbeats, which is the first time anyone thought to do this- wish I had thought of it. They figured that being able to decipher when your heart is beating is a good indicator of “body awareness” or knowing what’s up in your body.

Ainsley and Tsakiris had some ideas about what they would find: They thought they might be able to predict how much a woman self-objectified if they knew her level of interoceptive awareness. In other words, they predicted that a woman who was really good at keeping track of the beating of her heart would probably self-objectify less.

And what did they find? Well, don’t be shocked: They found a clear relationship between self-objectification and interoceptive awareness. It seems that the less a woman was able to figure out when her heart was beating, the more she tended to self-objectify. The researchers think that self-objectifying is what leads to not being in tune with your body. It makes sense. The more time we spend obsessing about how our bodies look, the less time we have to actually pay attention to how our bodies feel. Think about all of the girls who are so concerned with looking sexy on Halloween that they don’t even notice that their costumes are like crushing their vital organs and causing them to faint. Or at least be miserable. Who could think or feel or eat anything through all of that noise? You’re in survival mode. And don’t even get me started on how all of the Halloween costumes marketed to girls are sexified versions of something that boys actually get to be

But I digress. The take-away message from the study? The mind/body connection is real, so women who are less obsessed with how they appear to others may have a strong understanding of their bodies, which is awesome and shows that it really does make sense to focus on how you feel instead of how you look. But, on the other hand, when we fixate on what we look like or how we appear on the outside, we are more likely to lose or not have a sense of what’s going on inside of us. And now *my* take-away for you? What a shame that is, and for so many reasons. Every revolution I’ve ever been down with is made up of a bunch of people who could hear their own heartbeats and were all ears, listening for something that sounded familiar out there. Every single one. And who needs a revolution more than all of us girls who have ever hated our bodies instead of using them to fight back against anyone or anything that has the audacity to tell us to hate our bodies? Who, more than we do, needs to know that our hearts are still beating?

[1] Fredrickson B.L. & Roberts T. A. (1997). Objectification theory. Psychology of Women quarterly 21: 173–206.

[2] Moradi, B. & Huang, Y-P. (2008). Objectification theory and psychology of women: A decade of advances and future directions. Psychology of Women quarterly, 32 (4) 377–398.

[3] Ainley, V. & Tsakiris, M. (2013). Body conscious? Interoceptive awareness, measured by heartbeat perception, is negatively correlated with self-objectification. PLoS ONE, 8(2) e55568. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055568

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