Women Are More Than Objects of Desire

A deeper look into the effects of the portrayal of women’s bodies in media.

Credit: “Pretty Ugly” by Faith Arnett

I’m writing at an airport while simultaneously half-listening to the conversations around me. I glance up for a moment when I hear two older women fawning over beauty products at what looks like one of those airport vending machines for makeup. I walk over out of curiosity after they chat and leave, my jaw dropping when I fully see the object of their attention.

It’s shaped like a van with plastic luggage on top, all painted over with different shades of pink that stand out starkly from the typical white and black of the airport. Inside the machine are hundreds of little makeup items with promising names and phrases such as “Big Sexy Lip Kit” and “BigSlimPact!”

Their prices are vaguely marked $10 and over for items with less than 3.5 fluid ounces to meet the travel requirements, the only consolation being the selection touchscreen that assures you, “Half the Size, All the Glam!” The cherry on top of this feminine ice-cream-sundae disaster is its logo: “Benefit Cosmetics: Laughter is the Best Cosmetic.” If Benefit Cosmetics is right, then crown me Miss Universe because this minivan of makeup looks like it was stolen from a pink circus.

Big, sexy, slim, curvy, ideal … these are all the words this van would say if it could talk. The contradictions and the too-good-to-be-true promises, all for the price of $10 and up, “guaranteed” to make you an object of desire.

The Facts Behind The Feelings

Though this pink station isn’t directly related to social media, it does an exemplary job of summing up the experience that women have with it. Female high school students at Chadwick tend to feel this pressure and comparison of standards on various media platforms.

“I tend to compare myself to what I see on social media, mostly in a negative way,” said one Chadwick student who wished to remain anonymous. “And it goes beyond just the way I look. Social media makes me focus on what I don’t have, and feel guilty for not having it, and that’s a feeling unlike any other that I never want to feel.”

Added senior Megan Lesser: “I think Instagram can be a bit difficult to watch because it’s all pictures and essentially comparisons between yourself and who you’re seeing. If you follow celebrities, models or just pretty friends, you can experience that, too. Instagram stays forever, for the most part, which makes body image a bit difficult as well.”

A study done in 2019 on women between the ages 18 and 30 found the correlation between body insecurities and commentary regarding women’s selfies on Instagram overwhelmingly positive¹. They based their observations from Objectification Theory, which states that women of all ages are accustomed to forming their perspective of themselves based on an outsider’s perspective, creating a consciousness of their body that often leads to higher likelihoods of severe mental illness and a decline in physical wellness². This same theory remains true on other social media platforms such as Facebook³, where another study focused on a younger group sample of adolescent females ages 12–18. Desire for thinness, self-objectification, and weight and appearance dissatisfaction were all increasingly made worse depending not on how long girls spent on social media, but how long they spent looking at other people’s photos and pages.

This harmful exposure can range from looking at bone-thin models to actively following pages that encourage diets which practically encourage starvation. This is the first phase of Objectification Theory — women begin to create a critical, self-aware voice that obsesses over their body to the point where they think of nothing else. Associate Professional Clinical Counselor Mallorie Collier says this mind-set is difficult for her clients at Journeys Counseling Ministry in Torrance to break out of.

“It’s one of the hardest things to treat, and it’s usually triggered by low self-esteem or some sort of traumatic event,” Collier says. “What makes it worse is our current cultural environment, where women are bombarded by this thin ideal. It’s really hard to imagine females walking around without being influenced by advertisements in media and social programming.”

A Fate Worse Than Death

According to the Center for Discovery, a national organization based in Los Alamitos that specializes in treating eating disorders, the death rates due to anorexia nerviosa are double that of schizophrenia, nearly triple that of bipolar disorder, and more than triple the death rates related to depression.

That puts it at the top of deadliest illnesses.

But what makes it so deadly? To understand that, we have to look closer at where it all happens: the brain. Chadwick School science teacher Kathleen Westervelt, who teaches a class dealing with brain and behavior, explains first that happiness is crucial to our success, something that she believes isn’t emphasized enough in our culture.

“Most Americans will say you work hard, you become successful, and then you’re happy,” Westervelt says. “But the way the brain works actually is that if you’re happy first, if you’re in a positive state, and you have all the chemicals you need to be alert, to be aware, to make decisions, then you wind up being more successful with the things you’re facing in your life because your brain is more prepared for it.”

Westervelt further connects this crucial behavior to Objectification Theory. “Let’s say you have a bad self-image, you’re looking at images of other people and you’re comparing yourself. And that’s just lowering your self-esteem and your affect comes down. So right there, if that’s what you’re thinking about, that’s putting you at this lower place when you’re participating in sports or school. A lower affect, a depressed or sad affect, hinders the brain’s ability to take in new information, concentrate and be motivated to act.”

This is the final nail in the coffin for Objectification Theory — a severe limitation in all activities of life to the point where the mental and physical degradation fully consumes the inflicted whole. Westervelt has had to experience the full-on effects of this firsthand as a parent.

“I have a complex set of emotions, and one of them is anger,” she says. “It makes me angry as a parent because I have three daughters and they’ve all been affected by it in different ways, every single one of them. The other feeling I have is that it makes me frustrated on their behalf and worried and concerned because if so much of your mental space is taken up with this in dialogue that is so self-critical, then it’s taking away all the time that your brain can be using for something else.

“Then it also energizes me a little bit to have open conversations both with my students and my daughters about it, to say things like, ‘We need to stop shaming each other, we need to be more supportive. We need to stop commenting on how people look in general.’ I think you can set these standards, both for yourself as a mom and as a teacher, about how you’re going to construct the space so that people feel safe in it. So of course, my husband and I had to really think through, how are we constructing this space in our home? How are we contributing to these ideas?”

What Westervelt touched upon was also one of the most important things I found when researching body image. The language that the media uses about bodies and food is a small but monumental factor in preventing the first phase of Objectification.

“One of the things we learned was that language is very important, about how you talk about food in particular,” Westervelt says. “But like for people with eating disorders, the system that we learned is that all food is fit. All food fits, you can eat anything, but as you eat you should have a balance, you should have a diversity, and it should be in moderation. So those three words — balance, diversity and moderation — were kind of the keys to helping our daughters have healthier eating patterns.”

Adjusting the way we view food and talk about bodies is a small step that all of us can take. In the longer run, women can only hope that social media can be used as a more positive experience.

“I want social media to be an unbiased, support-everyone sort of platform,” said a Chadwick student who requested anonymity. “I wish there weren’t a number of followers or likes or even comments. I wish it was just a place to share photos and stuff. If that is what it was like, then I wouldn’t feel so hesitant to post stuff. It’s so stupid that I care and stress over that, but it also makes me wonder if I’m not alone. I doubt that I am.”

Sources Cited

  1. Butkowski, Chelsea P., Travis L. Dixon, and Kristopher Weeks. “Body Surveillance on Instagram: Examining the Role of Selfie Feedback Investment in Young Adult Women’s Body Image Concerns.” Sex Roles 81.5–6 (2019): 385–97. ProQuest. Web. 13 Apr. 2021.
  2. Fredrickson, Barbara & Roberts, Tomi-Ann. (1997). Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 21. 173–206. 10.1111/j.1471–6402.1997.tb00108.x.
  3. Meier, Evelyn P. and J. Gray. “Facebook Photo Activity Associated with Body Image Disturbance in Adolescent Girls.” Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking 17 4 (2014): 199–206.

Chadwick School senior and Editor-In-Chief of school newspaper The Mainsheet. Writing to help spread awareness.