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How sexually objectifying women leads them to objectify themselves

The process by which sexual objectification is psychologically harmful to women was first described by psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in the mid-1990s.

We believe our research, conducted with colleagues in the US, is the first to demonstrate that when women are exposed to sexually objectifying events in their everyday lives, they become more preoccupied with their physical appearance.

Several times each day, the app prompted them to rate their emotions, how preoccupied they were with their physical appearance (a measure of self-objectification), and whether they had recently been targeted by sexually objectifying behaviour – or had witnessed such treatment of other women.

Second, instead of relying on potentially unreliable memories of past events and feelings recorded in surveys or journals, by using frequent smartphone surveys we could gather more accurate “real time” reports of sexual objectification.

Our findings were consistent with Fredrickson and Roberts’s theory: women reported being preoccupied with their physical appearance roughly 40% more when they had recently been targeted by sexually objectifying behaviours, compared to when they had not.

Just as passive smoking is harmful to non-smokers, second-hand exposure to sexual objectification may reduce the emotional well-being of women, even if they are rarely or never objectified themselves.