When I talk to people about the objectification of women, there's always a lot of confusion. People ask, "Isn't it human nature to objectify people?" Others say women should take it as a compliment. But there's a difference between appreciating a person's beauty and objectifying a whole group of people. While appreciation acknowledges someone's looks as one small part of who they are while still viewing them as an individual, objectification reduces someone to their looks and to the stereotype of a group they belong to.
"When you're objectified, you can start to confuse your value with your sexuality," Dr. Susan Edelman, psychiatrist and author of Be Your Own Brand of Sexy, tells Bustle. "When you see so many beautiful faces and bodies in media, you often wonder, 'What’s wrong with me that I don’t look like that?' It can be hard to see the value in your inner beauty when the pressure is on. Not only are you shamed for how you look — as in fat-shaming — but your culture also profits from your insecurities. We're trying so hard to meet impossible beauty ideals that now 90 percent of women aren't happy with how they look. Unhappiness is not empowerment. Trying to meet other's ideals of beauty is more like people-pleasing. People-pleasing often doesn't work out, because you can never make everyone happy."
Research backs this up. A number of studies, many of them reported in the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, have shown that the societal objectification of women has negative effects on their mental and even physical health. Here are a few troubling, scientifically proven consequences of society's objectification of women.
The objectification of women can lead women and girls to base their value on their appearance. If they don't fit society's beauty standards, they may develop body image issues or disordered eating. A study in Sex Roles found that the more girls objectified themselves, the more appearance-related anxiety and body shame they experienced. This anxiety and shame in turn increased girls' risk for disordered eating.
2Difficulty In School
There's a stereotype that women aren't good at math, but the few differences that have been found between men's and women's math ability go away once you consider societal factors, objectification included. One study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women performed better on math tests after trying on a sweater than after trying on a swimsuit. The self-objectification they experienced in the dressing room actually made them less confident in their intellectual abilities.
4Neglect For Inner Beauty
When women are reduced to their physical appearances, all the things that make them beautiful on the inside, like kindness and intelligence, come to seem less important, says Edelman. They waste time and energy perfecting their appearances that could be spent developing their careers, bonding with their loved ones, and making the world a better place.
5Relationship Problems For Men
It's not just women who suffer for their objectification. When men are fed an unrealistic idea of the ideal woman, one that's there solely for their pleasure and always looks perfect, they may have trouble forming physical and emotional relationships with real women. A study in Psychology of Men & Masculinity found that men who were less comfortable with women's bodies — their real, living, breathing, sweating, pooping bodies — experienced less intimacy in their relationships.
These problems don't mean women can never be the "objects" of anyone's desire. But they do mean we need to be subjects — people who have desires ourselves, and whose desires matter.