The University Record, October 28, 1998

U-M study documents high costs of females’ preoccupation with physical appearance

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

How do I look? Even if the answer is “Great,” just asking the question can have a harmful effect on a woman’s emotional health and mental performance, according to a University of Michigan study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

U-M social psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson and colleagues report the results of two experiments that dissect the psychological toll of what used to be dismissed as vanity. The common obsession with appearing young, thin and beautiful isn’t harmless, the research shows in studies with more than 350 young men and women. The studies are among the first “to document the psychological costs of raising girls in a culture that persistently objectifies the female body” and socializes women to adopt a third-person perspective on their bodies.

This perspective is more common among women than men, according to the findings by Fredrickson and other researchers from the U-M, Duke University, and Colorado College. It produces a strong feeling of shame about their bodies and results in a peculiar pattern of restrained eating that may be linked with full-blown eating disorders.

One of the experiments shows that what a woman wears, even when she is alone, can heighten her preoccupation with how her body looks, at the expense of her mental performance. “Fredrickson found that what they wore made no difference for men.”

“It isn’t just clothes like bathing suits, that are revealing or low-cut, that can have this effect,” says Fredrickson. “Any clothing or circumstances that make a woman feel self-conscious about how she looks to others, even if she thinks she looks great, might reduce the mental energy she brings to demanding tasks, like solving advanced math problems.”

Just asking yourself how you look, constantly checking your appearance in mirrors, adjusting a strap, or tugging on a skirt uses mental resources that are, by consequence, unavailable for challenging mental tasks, according to Fredrickson.

Women varied quite a bit on how preoccupied they were with their appearance, Fredrickson and Stephanie Noll found. “But as a group, women scored higher than men on tests of what the researchers call self-objectification.”

This tendency to view your body from the outside in—regarding physical attractiveness, sex appeal, measurements and weight as more central to your physical identity than health, strength, energy level, coordination or fitness—may have harmful effects beyond diminished mental performance, increased feelings of shame and anxiety, and the development of eating disorders, according to Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts, a social psychologist at Colorado College. Other consequences might be the high prevalence of depression and sexual dysfunction among women.

While waiting for society to change, women can do a few things to minimize this tendency to objectify themselves and to discourage its development in their daughters.

Try to focus on how you feel, not how you look, says Fredrickson. Wear clothes that are comfortable and functional, she advises, rather than clothes that focus attention on your appearance, elicit looks and remarks from others, or require constant self-monitoring.

 


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