Effects of Sexual Objectification of Women in the Media
by Keira Mull, Notre Dame of Maryland University
Abstract: Recently there has been a rise in sexually objectified portrayals of women in mainstream media. Women are reduced to their bodies and as such are viewed as having no personhood causing a female’s worth to be dependent on her appearance (Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2010). The present research paper examines how women are affected by the reduction to objects in order to fulfill the sexual pleasures of men. Using the recent research available, a thorough analysis was conducted to understand how sexual objectification affects consumer culture, self-esteem in adolescents, and lastly the beauty standards in America. The results reveal how a patriarchal culture promotes the objectification of women to sell products, sometimes selling the actual objectified women. Additionally, this sexual-objectification is internalized to self-objectification that undermines self-esteem and promotes self-hatred and sometimes self-harm. Sexual portrayals of women also promote a very narrow American beauty standard that is hard to obtain. Research about sexual objectification in other countries like India and Pakistan was used to compare how different cultures use and reduce women to objects (Lepcha, 2018; Ullah & Khan, 2014). Finally, a comprehensive analysis on the limitations and gaps in this research field showcases how future research can improve and expand on objectification theory. Ultimately, understanding the sexual objectification of women in media can promote media literacy and improve self-confidence.
The treatment of women in society is reflected through the depictions of females in various forms of media, which showcase the societal ideals of femininity. With the rise of sexually objectified portrayals of women in mainstream media, females are reduced to their bodies and are encouraged to care about their appearance. These themes reveal that women are seen as decorative objects and not as people with thoughts, feelings, and voices. Additionally, these sexual portrayals of women promote the idea that women and their bodies exist to fulfill the pleasures of men. Consequently, this sexual objectification of women in American media promotes consumer culture, undermines self-esteem, and imposes unrealistic beauty standards.
Through the lens of objectification theory, women are sexually objectified to the point that they are treated as inanimate objects (Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2010). As such, a woman is divided in a way that her mind and body are separated so that there is a focus on the female form, which can be used by others (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015). This objectification is used and evident in daily advertisements and commercials, which perpetuates further objectification of women. However, there is a distinction between sexual objectification and sexualization even though they are often used as synonyms. Whereas sexual objectification reduces a person to the level of an object, sexualization focuses on a person’s appearance and their sexual appeal (Fasoli, Durante, Mari, Zogmaister, & Volpato, 2018). Thus, the sexualization of women portrays them in provocative and revealing clothing in order to fulfill male sexual fantasies (Malson Halliwell, Tischner, & Rúdólfsdóttir, 2010). Additionally, sexualization can be seen as a form of sexism in which there is bias due to a person’s gender (Ward, 2016). In contrast, a person is sexually objectified when they are viewed as an inanimate object with no personal qualities such as intelligence (Szymanski et al., 2010). In their research, Fasoli et al. (2018) found that an increase in sexualization is associated with a decrease in competence, which demonstrates the objectification or a reduction in the person’s abilities. Further research demonstrates that there has been an increase in women’s sexualization over time from the 1960s to the 2000s and with more frequency than men (Hatton & Trautner, 2011). Overall, the recent increased emphasis on the body and its appearance instead of personality dehumanizes women so that they are viewed and treated as objects (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015).
The sexual objectification of women to accentuate their body is reflected by the promotion of consumer culture in America. However, to understand consumer culture it is important to understand that the mainstream culture in America is patriarchal, male-dominated, and male centered (Szymanski et al., 2010). In this patriarchal society, men are more likely to buy products that have sexually objectified depictions of women (Conley & Ramsey, 2011). The arousal due to sexualized women in advertisements cause men to associate the positive reaction with the product and thus result in its purchase (Bongiorno, Bain, & Haslam, 2013). As a result, female objectification can be seen today in mainstream visual media such as commercials, television, movies, music videos, magazines, advertisements, video games, etc. (Szymanski et al., 2010). With this overabundance of media, it is estimated that American children and adolescents spend at least eight hours a day consuming some form of media (Ward, 2016). For example, it has been shown that 45.5% of female characters in children’s television programs are depicted in sexually objectified ways (Ward, 2016). As a result, children at a young age begin to associate females with objects instead of people, which showcases the dehumanization of women. Further objectification is exemplified by provocative clothing or lack thereof that women are seen wearing in music videos and television commercials (Ward, 2016). Camera angles that portray female bodies in a voyeuristic way further demonstrate that women are deprived of personality and replaced as sexual objects (Guizzo, Gadinu, Galdi, Maass, & Latrofa, 2017). Thus, the way women are portrayed aids in the promotion of consumerism because it attracts customers to literally buy females.
This consumer culture can be seen through the acquisition of magazines where women are sexually objectified throughout. Interestingly, a study conducted by Hatton & Trautner (2011) found that women are more frequently sexualized and hypersexualized than men on the covers of the Rolling Stone magazine. In a review of the covers of Rolling Stone during the 2000s, they found that women were almost five-fold or 66% more sexualized than men. This finding was based on the construction of a 23-point additive scale of sexualization based on several variables. An image was categorized as hypersexualized if there was a combination of various sexualized characteristics such as body position, degree of nudity and text surrounding the image. These elements can be used as a marketing strategy to increase sales in the magazine. The text on these covers emphasize the “bad” girl motif through the use of the words like “nasty” and “dirty” to lure consumers to purchase the magazine. Thus, women are sexually objectified for the purpose of consumption and the spectacle of their bodies. This is exemplified by the fact that most images focus on a woman’s body, such as her breasts and butt, but not her face or brain. As a result, dismembered women’s sexual body parts are recognized better when there is no context of the entire body (Ward, 2016). Moreover, women in these images pose in a way to emphasize these aspects of their body such as arching the back to extend their chest and buttocks (Hatton & Trautner, 2011). The study demonstrates how women are portrayed and expected to fulfill the sexual desires of men. These women are literally being bought like objects because of their depiction on magazine covers. Research even suggests that some men who associate women as objects have increased sexual aggression and perceive rape as sexual pleasure for women (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015). However, this idea demonstrates how women are perceived and thus treated as instruments owned by someone else. Therefore, in the purchase and possession of the magazine, there is a visual possession of the women by the consumer, often times a heterosexual male (Hatton & Trautner, 2011).
Furthermore, the advertisements in magazines also demonstrate the sexually objectified portrayals of women for the purpose of selling products. This is very detrimental because magazine advertisements reach a large amount of people, which means they have an enormous impact (Conley & Ramsey, 2011). For example, an analysis of this relationship indicated that 51.8% of advertisements objectified women, with men’s magazines having the most amount of these depictions of women (Ward, 2016). Thus, the sexually objectified portrayals of women are directed toward a male audience because they are more likely to consume the products. Multiple alcohol advertisers have used sexual exploitation ploys and sexual fantasies to sell their products to their target male audience (Szymanski et al., 2010). When females were featured in advertisements for alcohol there was an emphasis on their chest and/or their crotch almost 50% of the time (Szymanski et al., 2010). As a result, men are conditioned that if they buy this particular product with sexually objectified women, their sexual fantasies will be fulfilled. For example, a cologne advertisement with an objectified female does not expect the woman to wear the cologne. Instead, she emphasizes the opportunities that males may expect as a result of purchasing the product, such as “getting with the girl” (Conley & Ramsey, 2011). This idea further showcases that men feel entitled to women and their bodies for male’s needs. Overall, women and their bodies are used to sell products, which promotes a consumer culture in America.
Lastly, Gill (2012) discussed how consumer culture is using a new way of portraying women in this sexualized manner through the depiction of sexual empowerment. Through this empowerment initiative, women are viewed as having a choice and power over their bodies. However, there are still underlying themes of sexism, but they are packaged in a shiny new way so that people don’t recognize it as sexism. Gill (2012) best exemplifies this idea through her distinction of feeling empowered and being empowered. She argues that feeling empowered is a ploy used by advertisers to continue the sexual exploitation of women for the promotion of consumer culture. This fake empowerment is commodified to increase the purchases by women. For example, women are “empowered” to get cosmetic surgery for themselves to look and feel better (Malik, 2014). However, true empowerment would come from the promotion of loving oneself, not changing oneself. Society has conditioned women to see themselves as objects, which result in women internalizing this notion and feeling obligated to upgrade their external exterior or at least alter it. It appears that the cosmetic industry preys on the objectification of women to sell their products because women believe they should use them; this cycle emphasizes that women are decorative objects and as such should be beautiful (Swami et al., 2010). Overall, consumer culture is reflected and promoted through the objectification of women in order to sell products that meet their artificial needs, which are perpetuated by society.
This overabundance in the exposure of sexualized media fosters the internalization of sexual objectification, which leads to self-objectification and lower self-esteem found in women (Halliwell et al., 2011). As a result of sexual objectification, women’s value and worth is dependent on their physical appearance instead of the other qualities that make them unique individuals, such as their voices (Halliwell et al., 2011). This internal perception of oneself focuses on the external appearance, which demonstrates that women treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated based on their appearance (Szymanski et al., 2010). Furthermore, the third-person perspective that women use to view their own bodies leads to a lower self-esteem (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015). For example, a study found that self-objectification and weight dissatisfaction were positively correlated (Halliwell et al., 2011). The results of the study reveal that negative media exposure has negative effects on body image because women evaluate themselves based on these sexual portrayals of thin women in the media (Halliwell et al., 2011). Because of the exposure to ultrathin bodies, women have been shown to have body dissatisfaction and weight dissatisfaction that results in food restriction (Halliwell et al., 2011). This food restriction emphasizes the fact that women are involved in routine body monitoring and self-observation due to self-objectification (Ward, 2016). However, food restrictions can lead to eating disorders, such as anorexia, and other physical problems (Swami et al., 2010). Self-objectification not only has an impact on an individual’s physical well-being, but also on the psychological health of women (Halliwell et al., 2011). The focus on models’ bodies in advertisements can lead to depression, body dysmorphia, and appearance anxiety (Carr, 2015). Furthermore, the dissociation of women and their bodies promotes bodily harm like food restriction and substance abuse, such as nicotine, because there is a diminished internal awareness of women’s bodies (Carr, 2015; Szymanski et al., 2010). Cigarette companies use thin models to advertise to women that they should buy their product because smoking can be used as an appetite suppressant (Szymanski et al., 2010). As a result, women use smoking to control their weight but at the cost of being addicted and reliant on cigarettes. Thus, the sexual objectification of women found in media manifests internally as self-objectification that undermines self-esteem by cultivating self-hatred and self-harm.
Lower self-esteem is also the result of the narrow ideas of femininity and beauty standards, which result in the representation of women in the media. Models are used for women to compare themselves to, which places a greater emphasis on women’s own physical appearance (Bongiorno et al., 2013). However, beauty standards are often unattainable due to the fact that the models are portrayed as flawless and airbrushed so that there is a misconception of the model having perfect skin (Conley & Ramsey, 2011). Photoshop also promotes this ideal beauty standard because advertisers are able to edit images (Gill, 2012). Nevertheless, the feminine beauty standard endorses benevolent sexism, in which women are viewed as passive and powerless (Swami et al., 2010).
Interestingly, the ideal beauty is promoted by the top celebrity of the time, who sets the standard for other women (Malik, 2014). Advertisers often use celebrities as models to promote their products. As a result, the depictions of these females in media tend to showcase ultrathin, white, and young female bodies as maximally attractive (Halliwell et al., 2011). This further demonstrates that anything other than the American beauty standard of white, thin, and young is not beautiful. As a result, old age is seen as a disease that women should avoid and correct through surgical means (Malik, 2014). Because most models depicted in the media are white and thin, there is the promotion of Caucasian females as the beauty ideal in America (Szymanski et al., 2010). Nevertheless, America is a melting pot with various ethnicities and cultures that are not represented by this beauty standard. As a result, women of color may go as far as altering their physical appearance to attain this ideal. For example, women of color could alter their hair by straightening or dyeing it, lighten their skin with the use of cosmetics, or even undergo plastic surgery to change their natural bodies (Szymanski et al., 2010). The physical changes circle back to both consumerism and self-esteem because products are used in each one of these physical alterations. Additionally, because advertisements that promote consumerism are designed to attract the male audience, the beauty ideals that result are reflections of hyper-heterosexualized characteristics and orientations that men desire (Malson et al., 2010).
This paper focuses on the sexual objectification in American media; however, different countries and cultures may have different standards of beauty. For example, Lepcha (2018) explored the sexual objectification of women in Indian television advertisements. Similar to the objectification of women in America, Indian media sexualized women to add glamour and appeal to male consumers so that they purchase the product advertised. Furthermore, there were zoomed-in images of lips and other body parts, which is seen in American advertisements. Although Indian and American media both portray women as objects to fulfill the desires of men, there are regulations to control indecent representations of women in Indian advertisements not seen in America. Ullah & Khan (2014) explored the objectification of women in television advertisements in Pakistan. The results of the study show that Pakistan also sexualizes women and their bodies to sell products. However, there is some base level regulation to control advertisements as seen in India. Interestingly, Pakistan’s beauty ideals are very similar to American ones despite the different cultures and religions. For example, having a white complexion is the ideal because brown and black complexions are seen as crude. The researchers explained the history of colonialism and how that impacted the formation of this beauty standard. As a result, a female’s worth is based on her external appearance and not her internal thoughts. Similar to America, the sexual objectification of women in Pakistan can also lead to disordered eating and depression. Ultimately, the sexual objectification of women in media promotes a narrow and culturally acceptable ideal of femininity across all cultures (Hatton & Trautner, 2011). Surprisingly, the different countries reflect how American sexual objectification of women in the media promotes consumer culture, undermines self-esteem, and imposes beauty standards. Nevertheless, this could be a result of America being looked to as a leader and world power.
Limitations & Future Directions
As with any research there are limitations and gaps to the research, which need to be understood to progress in this field of study. One example of a limitation to the research is that there is no standardization of scales used in various studies, thus it makes it difficult to compare results (Hatton & Trautner, 2011; Ward, 2016; Szymanski et al., 2010). Furthermore, there needs to be a distinction between objectification, sexual objectification, sexualization, and self-objectification at the start of the study to further understand the sexual objectification of women in American media. As a result of the lack of clarity, there is much literature about objectification compared to sexualization. A clear and defined distinction between the terms would help guide research in this field. Furthermore, this paper analyzed sexual objectification of women, not men. Most of the recent research focuses on the objectification of women in media, with little empirical data solely about men. This gap in the research could help explain how men’s portrayals in media affect masculinity and a male-dominated consumer culture. A very important limitation includes the fact that most of the recent studies conducted about objectification relied on undergraduate participants, who were white, heterosexual, and had a higher education (Gill, 2012; Halliwell et al., 2011; Malson et al., 2010; Swami et al., 2010; Szymanski et al., 2010; Ward, 2016). To remedy this bias, random and diverse sampling should be used so that the results in this field can be applied to a broader population. Furthermore, an emphasis on intersectionality’s role on sexual objectification should be explored to understand how an individual’s background impacts their sexual objectification. More research needs to be conducted in regards to media sexualization among ethnic minority populations (Ward, 2016). This may help explain the fetishization and stereotypes that some minorities face in America (Szymanski et al., 2010). Additionally, media has changed within the last decade with the rise of social media. However, research on such topics takes time which leads to gaps in this research area and out of date results. For example, comparisons to oneself are no longer limited to only models and celebrities but now extend to close friends. Further research should explore how this accessibility to media affects social comparison and self-esteem (Ward, 2016). Additionally, with the rise of social media, an emphasis on media literacy is also applicable (Guizzo et al., 2017). By exposing people to the ploys of media that sexually objectify women, females can be more critical in their media consumption and promote healthy relationships with their bodies.
Overall, the sexual objectification of women in mainstream media leads to women being viewed for their bodies but not their minds across many cultures. This shifts the emphasis for women to the preservation of external beauty. Using sexualized portrayals of females, advertisers promote products to their target consumer. However, instead of selling just their products, advertisers sell the fantasy of women and sometimes the actual objectified women through these advertisements. Sexual objectification also can lead to the internalization of self-objectification that undermines self-esteem, which can affect an individual’s physical and psychological wellbeing. Finally, the sexual objectification of white, thin, and young females promotes this ideal as the beauty standard for all women. Ultimately, this paper demonstrates the effects of media portrayals of women on consumer culture, self-esteem and beauty standards. Additionally, this paper seeks to spread awareness of this topic to promote women to focus on their thoughts and speak their truth. Only when the emphasis of a woman’s body is shifted to her voice can she truly change the world and speak truth to power.
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