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Dr. Elizabeth Graham
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The Perfect Body
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Female Body Modification
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Young Girls and Body Image
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Unachievable Standards
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Objectification and Well-being
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Intimate Partner Violence
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Sex Trade - The Case of Thailand
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A Feminist Investigation: Objectification and Well-being
Heather Tornblom

The use of visual images to convey cultural ideals stands as one of the most prominent features of Western Society. The North American social environment is so entrenched in visual constructions, that it seems only natural for its people to rely on images as a primary source of information. The principles reproduced herein are of course reflective of larger cultural standards and expectations. These are intended not only to factually inform, but to shape and guide individuals towards that which is desirable and valuable.

According to Macionis and Gerber (2002), "Feminism views the personal experiences of women and men through the lens of gender. How we think of ourselves (gender identity), how we act (gender roles), and our sex's social standing (gender stratification) are all rooted in the operations of our society" (338). This definition of Feminist Theory is founded in a critical challenge to dominant gender norms in hopes of initiating collective change. The goal is to achieve a state of social equality between the sexes through the validation of diversity, proliferation of free choice, and deconstruction of gender stereotypes. The aims of this paper well serve the doctrines of Feminist philosophy. In its analysis, the paper implores the illumination of popular conceptions of women; encouragement of more inclusive, accepting portrayals of women's lives; elimination of traditional sex role stereotypes; and the end to minimization and victimization of women in the media

From the Feminist perspective, it is obvious the media presents a reconstruction of gender favoring specific, limiting, and objectifying requirements for women. The connection between the internalization of these ideals and personal success is often implied in the context. In order to illustrate the influence the media has on the lives of women, it is necessary to explore the types of messages put forth by the media, and the impact of such inundation on the self-perceptions of women. This paper will focus on three main areas of concern: the idealization of women in the media, the association between such presentations and the development of a state of self-objectification, and the outcomes of self-objectification on personal well-being.

It is hoped that an investigation of the content and narrative voice of media idealization might foster a better understanding of its bearing on women's lives and experiences. By acknowledging the influence the media can have on women, we create opportunities to reevaluate our cultural messages and change those that do not reflect our true intentions. Through awareness, we can better understand the detrimental effects of popular culture. We might also become more conscious of larger societal attitudes towards women, and be more prepared to buffer our sisters and ourselves against criticism and self-objectification.

The media relies on numerous images to convey cultural messages about women. Though an individual can encounter several of these images a day, the presentation of women in terms of their sex roles and appearance remains relatively limited. For instance, a content analysis by Carpenter (1998) of sex role presentation in Seventeen magazine from 1974 to 1994 indicated a tendency for editors to favor certain sexual scripts by maligning or excluding alternative roles and encouraging readers to adopt conventional sexual attitudes. Though there was an increase in presentation of female sexual agency, articles were more likely to support the sexual double standard and often pitted women as victims - either of sexual violence, insensitive lovers, or negative outcomes associated with sex. Readers were often guided to be fearful of sex, and to redirect their sexual desires towards daydreams, crushes, or the cultivation of the "perfect" romantic relationship (Carpenter, 1998). Given the true variety of sexual roles and relationships available, it is likely that such narrow parameters deny the real experiences of women.

From the Feminist perspective, the lack of diversity displayed in the media not only marginalizes those who have chosen a non-traditional lifestyle, but also fails to educate others to the possibility of alternative roles. By downplaying female sexual agency, editors discourage their readers from questioning gender hierarchies and stereotypes, or damaging relationship dynamics (Carpenter, 1998). Through narrow and confining presentations of female sexuality, the media perpetuates cultural attitudes that render women passive and vulnerable sex objects, instead of active, well-informed participants.

Similar restrictions regarding physical appearances have been propagated and maintained by popular media. A study by Sypeck, Gray, and Ahrens (2004) found evidence of the physical objectification of women. Their survey of cover models for four popular American fashion magazines implied a shift from pictures focusing on the face and torso to full body depictions. Models also grew progressively thinner and wore increasingly revealing clothing (Sypeck et. al, 2004). This suggests a widespread and growing tendency to focus on idealized images of the female body—with an emphasis on being thin.

According to feminist theory, the media's prodivity for praising particular body types again ignores the actual diversity in physical appearance and creates unrealistic standards of beauty. Millions of women subscribe to fashion magazines every year, and millions more find them in waiting rooms, offices, the homes of friends, libraries, and checkout lines. Given the growing exposure to full-length, scantily clad, unnaturally thin bodies, Sypeck and colleagues (2004) suggests these images may encourage women to develop unrealistic attitudes concerning what constitutes an ideal body. This may lead women to feel as if they do not measure up, impacting negatively on their self-concept and health. As beauty is often imminently associated with personal worth and recognition, woman may be directed towards managing their image through diet, exercise, consumerism, and surgery.

The thin ideal does not represent the only impractical portrayal of the female body in popular culture. Research by Harrison (2003) investigating the relationship between television viewing habits and individual perceptions of the perfect body revealed a correlation between the amount of television featuring ideal body types viewed and the desire to have a considerably smaller waist and slimmer hips. A medium bust size was always preferred, even though this often represented a chest size naturally impossible when compared to the desired dimensions of the lower body. Media consumption was further found to be related to approval of plastic surgery methods for obtaining body shape ideals (Harrison, 2003). This confirms that exposure to media archetypes not only increases dissatisfaction with one's body, but also encourages the acceptance of radical surgery as a means of conformity. This evidence underscores the impact of the limited models of beauty and sexuality provided to women through magazines and television. In line with tenants of Feminism, it is little wonder women would come to approve of extreme methods such as surgery for the purpose of achieving culturally espoused standards of beauty. As presented in the media, so much of a woman's personality, merit, desirability, and identity is located through adherence to culturally approved sex roles and body types. Women who embrace these ideals may not truly accept them, but may simply be trying to adapt to a world that judges them not as people but as parts.

It is apparent that media images often present an objectified, limited assessment of the ideal woman, underscoring the importance of understanding how exposure to these portrayals could affect the way women view themselves. A study conducted by Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2004) revealed that adolescent girls exposed to objectified images of beauty through television commercials subsequently displayed greater degrees of body dissatisfaction and negative emotion. Furthermore, girls who internalized the value of appearance more frequently engaged in social comparison with idealized images of beauty (Hargreaves and Tiggemann, 2004). This study demonstrates a negative relationship between the thin and attractive stereotypes epitomized in the media and the development of poor body image and self-esteem.

Further evidence of the relationship between poor body image and media consumption can be found in the results of an investigation by Botta (2003). This study revealed a link between the number of health and fitness magazines read and an increase in body image disturbance and related behaviors such as fasting, purging, use of diet pills and laxatives, and unreasonable desires to be thin. Additional findings indicated that specific focus on the bodies of featured models significantly increased body image dissatisfaction, even if the observer was critical of the biased representation of women. This effect was not observed for those who focused solely on the content of the articles (Botta, 2003). This stands as a shocking affirmation of the sway media images in particular have with women - even skeptics who reject the ideals presented in magazines feel the sting of the undeniable role physical appearance plays in the construction of one's personal and social identity.

The findings of the research by Hargreaves and Tiggeman (2004) and Botta (2003) indicate that familiarity with the thin ideal in visual media resulted in a decrease in satisfaction with body shape and an increase in negative emotional state. In order to engage in social comparison with media archetypes, it is the author's opinion that the subject must be capable of taking an observer's perspective of her body. Macionis and Gerber (2002) state that according to the feminist perspective, our attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs regarding gender are a product of our social environment. Theoretical assessment of these deductions suggests that emersion in a culture that frequently objectified women would facilitate a woman's ability to view her own body as an object.

There is considerable evidence to support the notion that a capacity for viewing one's body as an object could develop in response to larger societal inclinations for objectifying the female body. For example, a study conducted by Roberts and Gettman (2004) found that self-objectification could be easily induced in women through simple exposure to words focusing on physical appearance. Self-objectification was significantly tied to an increase in the levels of anxiety, social avoidance, distress, and self-consciousness (Roberts and Gettman, 2004). This confirms that a tendency to view one's own body as an object can be easily provoked, and that it can have negative consequences for a subject's psychosocial functioning.

Such findings can be interpreted as evidence for the perpetuation of gender stratification through the popular media. Roberts and colleagues pointed out, "Girls learn both directly and vicariously that their looks matter, that other people's evaluations of their physical appearance can determine how they are treaded and, ultimately, affect their social and economic life outcomes" (17). In light of this suggestion, the ability to view one's body as an object and being able to compare it with cultural archetypes can be interpreted as an attempt to preserve and improve social standing or increase personal worth through awareness of and conformity to changing ideals.

Women are widely idealized in popular media, and exposure to such prototypes could develop in women the predisposition to view the body from a dissociated perspective. It is important then to study the potential influence that the state of self-objectification could have on women's experiences. Calogero, Davis, and Thompson (2005) found that self-objectification and personal support of dominant media ideals regarding appearance were both significantly related to increases in the urge to lose weight and negative emotions such as shame in women admitted for treatment of pathological eating disorders. This implies a correlation between the objectified presentation of women in the media and the emergence of drastic, disordered, and potentially dangerous strategies for managing physical appearance.

In addition to a potential impact on the development of eating disorders, self-objectification can also detrimentally influence a woman's psychological functioning. In support of this, a study by Gapinski, Brownell, and LaFrance (2003) indicated a positive relationship between self-objectification and an increase in anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, and other negative emotional outcomes. Women who had internalized the importance of appearance in determining social identity displayed lower levels of motivation, cognitive performance, perceived capability, and personal value (Gapinski, Brownell, and LaFrance, 2003). It seems that contact with the endorsement of the objectification of women not only can impact negatively on women's physical health, but also on their mental and emotional health.

Further negative consequences can be observed to emerge in conjunction with additional confining archetypes put forth by the conventional media. Restricted images of female sexuality presented in popular culture could potentially shape the reader's understanding of available and desirable sex roles. For example, research by Kim and Ward (2004) found a correlation between teen magazine readership and the endorsement of the sexual double standard, or evaluation of the female sexual roles in submissive objectifying terms. Specifically, those motivated to read magazines for entertainment or beauty advice were likely to identify with a more traditional female role - valuing passivity, acquiescence, and harmony as essential qualities for maintaining successful sexual relationships (Kim and Ward 2004). The restricted availability of diverse sexual scripts can influence women's perceptions and attitudes towards relationship dynamics and sex roles. This results in a mainstreaming effect that grooms some women to conform while isolating and denigrating those who do not. It also does not encourage women to seek alternatives and challenge dominant social norms.

The far-reaching consequences of the marginalizing presentation of women illustrate several Feminist critiques of the depiction of societal attitudes towards gender in popular culture. According to Calogero and colleagues (2005), "Objectification occurs whenever a person is viewed, evaluated, and/or treated by others as just a body" (43). In agreement with Feminist Theory, idealization in the media simultaneously limits and minimizes the experiences and perceptions of real women, guiding them to seek approval and validation through the internalization of cultural ideals. This self-objectification could be damaging to physical and mental health, in addition to attitudes and understandings of sex roles. A resulting lack of purpose, competence, and motivation (Gapinski et al., 2003) creates little room for resistance. Obsession with a perceived failure to meet cultural standards nullifies and conceals women's power to generate change, thus preserving established gender hierarchies.

Many relationships between cultural representations of gender norms in the media and negative effects on women can be observed. Research by Harrison (2003) and Sypeck and colleagues (2004) illustrated the predominance of unrealistic body images. Furthermore, Carpenter (1998) evidenced the biased presentation of preferred sex roles in women's media (1998). Exposure to objectified images was not only linked to poor body image and negative mood, as in Hargreaves and Tiggeman (2004) or Botta (2003), but also to the increased tendency of women to adopt a third-party perspective in relation to viewing their own bodies, as in Roberts and Gettman (2004). This state of self-objectification was found by Calogero and colleagues (2005) to be related to disorder eating behaviors, and by Gapinski et. al. (2003) to correlate with a loss of motivation and concurrent increases in anxiety or despair. Media exposure was found to mediate the development of sexual attitudes favoring stereotypic or traditional beliefs (Kim and Ward, 2004).

A relatively biased popular culture dictates the stereotypic images of women, which impact the female self-identity, as well as both physical and mental health. In addition to tainting the relationships women have with their own bodies, self-objectification erodes women's sense of self-efficacy, self-worth, and desire for change. According to the Feminist perspective, this perpetuates the inequality of women, as they remain bound to their objectified states, preoccupied with their perceived shortcomings and blinded to their individual validity, authority, and capabilities. Perhaps these barriers to equality can be eliminated through conscious efforts to eliminate stereotypes, include and value alternative images opposing the status quo, and educate others to the inconsistency between cultural icons and real life experience.

Works Cited

Botta, R.A. (2003). For your health? The relationship between magazine reading and adolescents' body image and eating disturbances. Sex Roles, 48(9/10), 389-399.

Calogero, R.M., Davis, W.N., & Thompson J.K. (2005). The role of self-objectification in the experience of women with eating disorders. Sex Roles, 52(1/2), 43-50.

Carpenter, L.M. (1998). From girls into women: scripts for sexuality and romance in seventeen magazine, 1974-1994. Journal of Sex Research, 35(2), 158-168.

Gapinski, K.D., Brownell, K.D., & LaFrance M. (2003). Body objectification and "fat talk": effects on emotion, motivation, and cognitive performance. Sex Roles, 48(9/10), 377-388.

Hargreaves, D.A., & Tiggemann, M. (2004). Idealized media images and adolescent body image: "comparing" boys and girls. Body Image, 1, 351-361.

Harrison, K. (2003). Television viewers' ideal body proportions: the case of the curvaceously thin woman. Sex Roles, 48(5/6), 255-264.

Kim, J.L., & Ward, M. (2004). Pleasure reading: associations between young women's sexual attitudes and their reading of contemporary women's magazines. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 48-58.

Macionis, J.J., & Gerber L.M. (2004). Sociology. Toronto, ON: Pearson Education Canada, Inc., 388-340.

Roberts, T., & Gettman, J.Y. (2004). Mere exposure: gender differences in the negative effects of priming a state of self-objectification. Sex Roles, 51(1/2), 17-27.

Sypeck, M.F., Gray, J.J., & Ahrens, A.H. (2004). No longer just a pretty face: fashion magazines' depictions of ideal female beauty from 1959 to 1999. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 36(3), 342-347.

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