Objectification Epidemic: The Effects of Media on Gender Representation and Mental Health

A couple years ago, I wasn’t really aware of the constant objectification that today’s media has been stuffing down our throats, and how this had personally biased my values, beliefs, and even my daily behavior. Apparently, I didn’t pay too much attention to what I was watching or listening to, until my friend – the anthropologist – encouraged me to view things through a different pair of lenses. From that moment on, I decided to do some research and ended up discovering all those things that had been right in front of my eyes the entire time. I started to notice more consciously how media had reinforced and even created social stereotypes based on gender; alarmingly, women being the primary targets of objectification in society. Whether it’s on TV, radio, film, music or magazines, women are represented as sexual objects rather than women. A lot of concerns began to form in my head, leaving me disheartened by the question marks. How are we raising the future generations?

My research question is, “What are the depths of objectification through media on all the demographics amongst society?”

Objectification occurs when a person is treated as a commodity or an object, without regard to their personality or dignity. It can refer to a behavior of individuals, but is most commonly examined at the societal level. One of its branches is ‘Sexual Objectification’, which is the act of treating a person merely as an instrument of sexual pleasure. Decades of research have documented the numerous harmful ways of objectification. A vast number of studies showed that sexual objectification of women are increasing, while seeing their gender being sexually objectified is negatively affecting women’s cognitive development. Psychologists Robin Gay and Emmanuele Castano (2010) of the New School of Social Research arrived to conclusion that, “Their cognitive difficulties might be due to a split in perspective regarding the self”, and wrote, “A woman sees herself as a unique individual and a generic sexual being. Dividing the psyche in this uncomfortable way is likely to increase cognitive load, with a resulting decrease in the availability of cognitive resources for the tasks the individual engages in”. A team of Israeli and US psychologists (Tamar Sanguy et al., 2010) provided evidence of the social harms and consequences of sexual objectification with their study “Interacting like a body: Objectification can lead women to narrow their presence in social interactions.” in which they explained, how women align their behavior with what’s expected of them when prompted by objectification. If a person is treated like an object, they will start behaving like one (Sanguy, 2010).

Theorists, such as Caroline Heldman, PhD. (2012) have contributed to understanding the damage of objectification culture by targeting the difference between sexy and sexual. “If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon. Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy”. Heldman has made her audience and readers understand the power of words, because to feel beautiful and attractive is a good feeling. To the contrary, to feel ugly and unattractive is a horrible feeling. Therefor, self-objectification can be a double-edged dagger for those who base their self-worth and self-esteem on appearance, taking you on an emotional roller coaster of ups and downs, leading to irreversible mental and physical health problems.

Due to the modern society chronically and intrusively objectifying the female body, it has lead to ‘Self-objectification’, “A key process whereby girls [and women] learn to think and treat their bodies as objects of other’s desires” (Zubriggen et al., 2007:2). Many women have learned to view themselves through the bifocals of an external observer, monitoring their own appearance frequently, turning it into a habit. This internalized objectification has negative effects associated to it, and has been linked to mental health problems such as body shame, appearance anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction, depressed cogitative functioning, female competition, access to leadership and political efficacy (Calogero et al., 2007). Consequently, an empirically based approach to researching and counteracting self-objectification is critical.

When it comes down to pointing the finger at the cause of this disease, which has spread out like an invasive epidemic, the lack of knowledge tends to put men at fault of objectification. Is this plausible?

Helen Alvare (2008), a law professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and former spokeswoman for the U.S. bishop’s conference, mentioned that, “The degree to which women, individually and via organized groups, have embraced their own objectification as consumer items is a particularly disturbing feature of our current situation”, pointing the finger back at women. I’m left thinking, why would women want to be objectified, undergoing harm and negative side effects? Based on the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), more than 8,000,000 citizens in the U.S. have an eating disorder and 90% are women. These disorders usually begin in the teen years but may start as early as age 8. Is this behavior a consequence of our own self, or the external factors of society’s constructed normalcy?

The media plays a significant role in today’s society, not only informing and entertaining, but implanting values to various audiences. Advertisement is a vital component for the survival of any company and their main goal is to convince potential consumers, that their product is better than the competitor’s. Marketing strategies are indispensable, while the use of propaganda has integrated stereotypes into the messages used to promote and sell products. This makes media extremely dangerous. The most popular technique used since the breakthrough of media is sex. As a result, the overall image of women has been tainted and invalidated, disrespecting the true essence of femmes. Nowadays, we are surrounded by images everywhere we go. Our mind intakes and processes images subconsciously, shaping and recreating the way we view the world around us, creating public and private domains of influence to build our social behavior. “The average woman sees 400 to 600 advertisements per day”. Studies on the impact of gender representation on females have revealed that 56% of TV commercials and 50% of advertisements in girl’s magazines make use of beauty as a product appeal (Body Image & Advertising). This heavy attack of images defining an unattainable concept of beauty and ideal of the “perfect woman” has lead to the constant need to compare ourselves with others, creating insecurities and dissatisfaction with self. The majority of images reinforce stereotypical origins of femininity and masculinity, and our society plays a big role in the subject for creating, molding and then substantiating a mythic and faux sense of identity. These images mirror the social world, portraying sex-role stereotypes followed as a constructed ideology. Women are degraded to objects while masculinity is re-enforced. These advertisements are manifestations of the capitalist economy; tools that carry the ideological discourse to construct modern society, ruled by the upper hand of men. Through the repetition and reinforcement of commercials, a cultural impact is maintained (Montes-Armenteros, 131).

Erin Hatton, PhD, and Mary Nell Trautner, PhD (2011), assistant professors in the UB Department of Sociology, analyzed over 1,000 images of men and women over the course of 43 years on Rolling Stone Magazine covers, reaching to several striking conclusions. “Women in the popular media over the last several decades have become increasingly sexualized, even “pornified”. The same is not true of the portrayal of men.” Beyond the internal effects, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes men to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths (Burgess 2012) and contributes to rape culture, encouraging people to see women as sexually available objects rather than individuals with their own feelings and thoughts. Twenty to twenty five percent of women in college reported to have had experienced an attempted or a completed rape (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2012). Fifteen percent of rape survivors in the U.S. are under the age of 12 (Crisis Intervention Center, 26 Jul 2011).

One of the reasons why women are not taken seriously in political and media stances is the portrayal of females as a weak gender with a fixed worth based exclusively on their appearance. Studies show that women are barely shown as active professionals and rarely associated with intellectual activity. “Only 20% of news articles are about women, and many of these stories are of violence and victimhood” (Missrepresentation.org). The outdated representations of women don’t do justice to their present day status. While women are slowly gaining power all over the world, the media continues to misrepresent by relying on old-fashioned stereotypes. Media is brainwashing the public, dictating our social status and designating the kind of audience they want us to be (Sturken, Cartwright, 359). Through the theory of interpellation (Louis Althusser) we can understand how the public needs to relate to what they see and therefor, “you can’t be what you can’t see” (Marie Wilson).

Taking this in consideration, our children are constantly exposed to media and its effect. They are taught gender roles from a very early stage in life. The assumptions made about these stereotyped roles can be very difficult to acknowledge by children, as they can’t distinguish reality and fiction. Nowadays, 42% of kids under the age of 8 have a TV in their bedroom, and more than half of these children, have access to a new mobile smart device. Kids and young adults watch approximately 10 hours of media per day, and girls between the ages 11 and 14 watch on average, 500 ads a day (Missrepresentation.org). The influence of media is tangible and the repercussions can be heartbreaking. Several studies have shown that, by the age of 8, girls are unhappy with their bodies while 40% of 9-year-old girls have tried to loose weight (National heart, Lung and Blood Institute). “Among youth 18 and younger, liposuctions nearly quadrupled between 1997 and 2007 and breast augmentations increased nearly six-fold in the same 10-year period” (Women’s Media Center). The American Psychological Association (APA) estimates that teens are prone to 14,000 sexual references and allusions per year just through TV.

Gender stereotypes preserve social inequality, and even parents in most cases unconsciously make stereotypical decisions. Whether they paint the child’s room pink if it’s a girl, or blue if it’s a boy; they purchase specific toys based on their child’s gender, typically guns for boys and dolls for girls. Parents will, and continuously do influence their children. While girls are taught with games to do their “domestic duties”, boys are groomed for violence. The objectification consequences don’t exclude men and young boys (Wasylkiw 2010). They are constantly reminded to suppress their emotions and to be strong. In order to “be a man” in today’s society, young boys are groomed to not play with toys designed for girls. When they just happen to cross that constructed barrier, their sexual orientation is questioned and targeted for correction. From a young age, boys are told what they are supposed to be and do. Their actions towards women, are based on the guidelines that media has inculcated. If boys aren’t aggressive, independent, athletic, heroic or in control, they are put on a jury trial to address questions and concerns about their manhood identity. Young boys and girls, who are still developing physically and mentally, are being forced to adopt a premature identity based on these constructed guidelines. This creates an internal conflict that leads to mental health issues at a very young age, when their brains have yet to fully develop.

A new study conducted by Sarah Gervais, Theresa K. Vescio, Jens Förster, Anne Maass and Caterina Suitner (2012), psychologists at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, found that men are viewed as a whole object while women are seen as a collection of body parts. This is explained by a cognitive evolution, in which our brains use two different kinds of processing when visually stimulated by the images of women and men. The research additionally disclosed women viewing other women as a collection of body parts, proving a stronger impact of self-objectification. This conclusion may help explain how objectification has not only changed us internally but also biologically, even though more research is needed. Perhaps, female competition could be explained with these research results. Women, who objectify themselves, seek that self-esteem boost simply from a man’s glance. An unnatural rivalry amongst women will happen if another woman obtains that desired attention instead. The constant body monitoring and worrying about how men perceive them takes up mental space that could be used to focus on more important matters instead.

Everywhere we go, no matter how old we are, we are constantly receiving information externally that our brain will process internally. The media feeds us a big amount of this information daily. Whether it’s on TV, radio, film, music or magazines, women are not only misrepresented – they are disrespected. The main focus of media isn’t geared by morals and values, but solely by money making. As consumers, it is crucial to understand that we don’t just buy a product, but the implied concept and image that accompanies it. Media is clearly a powerful weapon in today’s society, having the ability to shape the culture’s sense of equality, romance, sex, gender representation, and the concepts of ‘ideal’ and ‘beauty’. It has created a worldwide desensitization, which affects our behavior, attitudes, personality traits and mental as well as physical health. But like any other weapon, it all depends on who is pulling the trigger. That power could be focused in the right direction, influencing society in a positive way by inspiration and motivation, rather than brainwashing propaganda and infliction of unhappiness.

In conclusion, it is our responsibility to provide a healthy environment to our children. As parents we must cherish their innocence and hold their hands through their growth. We should serve as role models, inspiring and motivating them to understand that the world has a lot to offer and they can achieve whatever goal they’ve decided to pursue, rather than dictating who they should be.


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