Managing your appearance is important because, for both men and women, attractiveness can translate into increased opportunities, whether in the workplace or on the social scene. For women, managing appearance is particularly important, as a woman’s value is too often tied to her looks. Even though men are not immune to the negative impact of being less physically attractive, it is women more often than men who are often judged primarily on the basis of their attractiveness. Thus, it is not too surprising that being physically attractive is important to women and that some women are willing to engage in risky appearance management behaviors to obtain what they consider to be the ideal appearance.
What are risky appearance management behaviors? Risky appearance management behaviors include activities that, if engaged in for a prolonged period of time, pose a threat to the health and well-being of the individual. These behaviors include smoking to curb one’s appetite, abuse of diet pills and diuretics, purging after eating and abuse of laxatives, among other behaviors. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University have been interested in identifying variables that impact young women’s willingness to engage in risky appearance management behaviors. Their research has documented several factors that contribute to a young woman’s willingness to engage in risky behaviors for the sake of her appearance. One of the first variables identified was extent of self-objectification.
Objectification refers to treating an individual like an object to be looked at and evaluated rather than being treated as a person. Self-objectification refers to the process of internalizing an outsider’s view of the self. In other words, self-objectification is concerned with the extent to which an individual views themselves as an object. The researchers found that the more a young woman accepted the view that she was “like an object,” the more she engaged in risky appearance management behaviors.
What leads to self-objectification? Doctors Smolak and Murnen, researchers at Kenyon College, argue that an important precursor to self-objectification is sexual objectification or sexualization. They argue that sexualization facilitates women’s belief that a sexy appearance is important not only to be appealing to others but also to be successful in all areas of life. They note that sexualization of women is an ever present phenomenon occurring in women’s clothing, appearance enhancing products, media and messages from parents and peers. They point to the media, in particular, as a source of extreme sexualization of women, or what has been termed pornification. The extreme sexualization of women is evidenced in the portrayal of women in the media (e.g., fashion advertisements) using items (e.g., wearing thong underwear) and poses (e.g., advertisements for Calvin Klein jeans) that used to be featured only in pornography.
Sexualization of women makes women vulnerable both physically and psychologically and is a form of oppression. Engaging in the activities requisite for meeting the goal of being beautiful may mean not only that women will put their health at risk by engaging in risky appearance management behaviors but also that their energies will be diverted away from empowering pursuits.
There are numerous obstacles to overcome in preventing self-objectification in women, but there are some simple steps that can be taken, including helping young women recognize and label instances of sexualization as well as promoting media literacy. Women, in their interactions with other women, can emphasize achievements during their conversations (e.g., what are you working on?) rather than focusing conversation on each other’s appearance (e.g., have you lost weight?). Empowering women to achieve through their intellect, personalities and character rather than solely through their appearance is a large undertaking but will ultimately improve the quality of their lives.
By Kim Johnson, PhD, University of Minnesota