According to the research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology
, and titled, Seeing women as objects: The sexual body part recognition bias
, a series of experiments demonstrated that participants processed images of men and women in radically different ways.
Ordinarily, there are two ways in which the brain processes data about an object. The brain either perceives the object as a collection of parts or as a whole. The study found that when presented with the image of a man, the brains of both male and female participants rely more on a "global" cognitive processing by which the brain perceived the image as a whole. But when presented with the image of a woman, both male and female brains resorted to "local" cognitive processing by which the brain objectifies the image as a collection of various parts.
According to the researchers
, the difference may be compared to the way we view pieces of a jigsaw and how we view the entire image.
According to Sarah Gervais
, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the study is the first to link perceptual cognitive processes to the objectification theory. She said: "Local processing underlies the way we think about objects: houses, cars and so on. But global processing should prevent us from that when it comes to people. We don't break people down to their parts – except when it comes to women, which is really striking. Women were perceived in the same ways that objects are viewed."
were randomly presented with images of fully clothed men and women with average looks. Each image was shown from head to knee, standing with eyes focused on the camera. After a brief pause, the participants were shown two images: the original image and a modified version of the original consisting of a sexual body part.
The participants were required to indicate which of the two images they had seen previously. The participants recognized consistently women's sexual body parts more easily when presented in isolation than when presented in the context of their entire bodies. But men's sexual body parts were recognized better when presented in the context of their entire bodies than in isolation.
"We always hear that women are reduced to their sexual body parts; you hear about examples in the media all the time. This research takes it a step further and finds that this perception spills over to everyday women, too. The subjects in the study's images were everyday, ordinary men and women... the fact that people are looking at ordinary men and women and remembering women's body parts better than their entire bodies was very interesting."
The team also found that men and women are equally guilty of sexual objectification of women. The gender of participants had no effect on the outcome, the study observed. The participants were evenly divided between men and women and each group was found to process images similarly. Both men and women perceivers saw men more “globally” and women more “locally.”
Gervais said: "We can't just pin this on the men. Women are perceiving women this way, too. It could be related to different motives. Men might be doing it because they're interested in potential mates, while women may do it as more of a comparison with themselves. But what we do know is that they're both doing it."
'Feeling objectified hurts'?
reports that numerous studies have found that feeling objectified is bad for women. Being ogled can make women do worse on math tests
. Objectification is also linked to body shame, eating disorders and mood disorders.
But it appears there are women who have taken advantage of this perceptual leaning of the human brain to their advantage. Of what use to the media is a Kardashian without her curves or a Coco without her cleavage? These women don't seem to hurt, rather they flaunt sexual body parts unabashedly and promote sexual objectification of their persons in public, proclaiming their behavior as "self-actualizing."
Sexual objectification of women and the 'burka' in Islamic tradition
reports that the study also explored conditions that encourage reduced objectification of women. The researchers said when the experiment was adjusted to create conditions where it was easier for participants to employ “global” processing, the sexual body part recognition bias appeared to be reduced. Women were more easily recognizable in the context of their whole bodies instead of their various sexual body parts.
The study said: “Our findings suggest people fundamentally process women and men differently, but we are also showing that a very simple manipulation counteracts this effect, and perceivers can be prompted to see women globally, just as they do men. Based on these findings, there are several new avenues to explore.”
A good example of an attempt to alleviate sexual objectification of women in public life is the Islamic tradition of making women wear the 'burka' in public. Islamists have often argued that women are required to wear the burka in Islamic cultures to defend their human rights by preventing sexualizing objectification and commercialization of their bodies. The rampant sexual objectification of women and the commercial exploitation of it is evident in the Western media.
Gervais' research could possibly be leading to social scientific review of the practice of burka veiling of women in Islamic cultures, given that every aspect of the fashion culture in Western tradition seems designed to promote the depersonalization of the female individual and her perception as merely a collection of sexual body parts.