You’ve likely heard of objectification, or treating someone like an object rather than as a living, breathing person. But what is self-objectification? You may not be as familiar with that one, but it’s extremely important and can really a toll on your well-being and your ability to connect with others. Let’s take a look at why body image and self-objectification can play such a big role in your life.

What is Self-Objectification?

Let’s start with a story.

One afternoon last summer, my cute, curly blonde-haired, four-year-old niece came over to visit me. She was decked out in a new dress she’d gotten that, if I remember right, was intended to resemble Princess Peach’s dress from Mario Kart. She was so excited about the new dress and as she stood on my front lawn, she tossed her head back, thrust her arms out, and twirled.How to have better body image

I snapped a picture of her in that moment and I still marvel at the sheer joy and the complete freedom of loving yourself with the heart of a four-year-old. She wasn’t concerned about a thing—her hair, her weight, her skin. She was just happy to have a new dress and wanted to show it off.

When’s the last time you felt that way about yourself?

Somehow this unabashed love of ourselves starts to slip away as we get older and unfortunately, the age that this starts to happen seems to be creeping younger and younger.

But wouldn’t you love to just love your body as it is, throw your head back, thrust your arms out and twirl?

Defined by Your Body

Why don’t you do this anymore? (If you do, count yourself as one of the lucky few.) Where did that comfort in your own skin and that love for your body go?

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, you got the message from society, and especially the media, that your worth is defined by what you look like.

Your weight. Your hair. Your breast size. Your eyelashes, eyebrows, toenails, fingernails, skin, height, clothes, muscles.

Though it happens for men at some level, being defined by your body is especially pervasive for women.

Women’s bodies are often sexualized and idealized in media, and research shows that women are much more likely to feel objectified (valued for their appearance rather than being treated as a person) than men.[1] The idealized female body (super thin, big boobs, flawless skin, etc.) is shown more often in media than an idealized male body (lean and muscular) and the ideal male body is easier to achieve than the idealized women’s body.[2]

The pressure is on for women and it’s everywhere around us. Literally everywhere.

Body Image and Comparison

When I surf Instagram, I see women posting pictures and videos of themselves that are not only extra flattering (because why would they post it if it wasn’t a great picture?) and of course show them with hair done and makeup on (and often lots of it), but they’ve got a filter on top of all of THAT! All of a sudden, my standard for what women are “supposed” to look like changes to something very unrealistic.

If I compare myself against that, I will never live up to it.

When I drive down the freeway where I live, I see billboards for cool-sculpting, laser hair removal, breast enhancement. Now I’ve got a message that tells me that if I’ve got a muffin top, unsightly body hair (even hair that grows in places it’s intended to grow), or regular old breasts, I am not good enough.

What is self-objectification?When I watch TV at night, I see actresses who are thinner than 98% of the population[3] and certainly aren’t eating in real life like they often portray in the show. (I’m looking at you Gilmore Girls! They are shown devouring endless amounts of burgers, donuts, mac and cheese, candy, and pizza every Friday night but never gain an ounce. Not super realistic. Or healthy.)

And did you know that the average adult spends more time using media—often the source of so many of these messages—than they do sleeping or working each day?![4] That means these messages are coming at you almost constantly. And the more time you spend using certain forms of visual media, the more likely you are to feel dissatisfied with your body.[5]

The messages women receive about their bodies are everywhere and are almost always directed at comparing, improving, and focusing on appearance at the expense of just about anything else.

Men also receive messaging about their bodies—expectations to be lean and muscular—and this is not a great situation for them either. And unfortunately, the rate of male objectification is only increasing.

As you can imagine, this emphasis on appearance can lead to a whole host of problems.

A Culture of Objectification

Treating a person like an object is called objectification.

Objectification means degrading and devaluing someone and instead of appreciating them for who they are, what you love about them, or what makes them truly special and lovable, you focus instead on what they look like. It’s as if they owe you their appearance. As if they exist for your visual consumption rather than as someone to love.

Those who feel objectified often feel like their body belongs less to themselves than it does to others.

How wrong is that?!

Your body is yours to feel, experience, taste, touch, smell, and enjoy all the things of this world. And that has nothing to do with what it looks like or how others perceive it.

As women, we often blame men for the objectification that happens to us, and there’s certainly some truth to that. Men ogling women has been around for a long time (thinking of King David’s treatment of Bathsheba in the Bible, for example) and things like pornography take that objectification to a whole new level.

It’s demeaning and disrespectful. It doesn’t lead to the respect and love (of self or partner) needed to support a healthy relationship.

But what you may not know, is that women can sometimes be just as prone to objectifying each other as men are to objectifying women.

This usually happens because of self-objectification. Let’s explore how and why that happens, but first, let me explain a little bit about what self-objectification is.

Disconnecting Body & Self Through Self-Objectification

When you get so used to feeling objectified by others that you start to buy into some (many, all?) of the idealized versions of what you are supposed to look like, what typically happens is that you start to objectify yourself.What is self-objectification?

This is called self-objectification.[6]

When you self-objectify, you try to see yourself as other people see you. So rather than being present and living fully in your body and experiencing things from the inside, you try to take a step outside and watch yourself experience it. And evaluate how you look while you do it.

Guess how well that works?

It doesn’t. It disconnects your mind and body because what you are thinking and what you are experiencing are two separate things and it leaves you unable to be present in the moment.

Let me give you an example of self-objectification in daily life:

I love to go to Zumba classes at the rec center near my house. I am not a dancer, but I wish I was, so this a great chance for me to try out my moves without an audience. Except…there are, of course, other people there dancing too, the teacher, and the mirror.

For the most part, I’m able to totally get into the dances and just move and shimmy and have a great time without worrying too much about what I look like.

Occasionally though, I’ll start to think about how I appear to others while I dance, or I will start to watch myself in the mirror, and almost inevitably I mess up the dancing at that point. I lose my concentration and my connection with my body so that instead of just dancing, I am thinking about what I look like dancing.

This is a prime example of self-objectifying and losing that connection between my body and my mind.

Imagine if this is happening to you all the time. You become a spectator in your own life rather than being able to remain present and enjoy the experiences you are having. And that’s true whether it’s dancing, eating, having sex, teaching, talking, playing a sport, or anything else you do with your body. This can affect a lot of areas of your life.

Self-Objectification & Your Friends

Remember how I mentioned that women tend to objectify other women? When you know what self-objectification is, it makes sense that some who self-objectifies would spend a bunch of time objectifying others too.

If I am so focused on appearance and evaluation of myself and believe my worth lies in my physical appearance, it’s only natural to turn those same eyes on others as well and begin to evaluate them too.[7] I start comparing myself to them, evaluating them, and maybe even praising them for their bodies or appearance, but it’s still objectifying.

There are a few women I’ve known in my life who typically greet me or others with things like “Hey, beautiful!” And though their intention is good and genuine, I will admit, it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel like it’s my appearance that is the focus of their attention and frankly, if their standards of beauty are the idealized images of womanhood that they are possibly trying to live up to, I know I don’t measure up. And they’ve just put a spotlight on that.

I’d rather they viewed me as the person I am inside: “Hey you fabulous cookie maker! You mom of four boys who is also working her tail off in graduate school and trying to be a good neighbor and friend and wishes it was summer all the time. Have you had your hot chocolate today?”

Or just a simple, “Hey! How’s it going?” would work.

The point is, shifting the focus of our interactions with others to appearance is painful for ourselves and is painful for them. Because none of us ever measure up to the false ideals we are sold and our focus on appearance serves as a constant reminder of that.

Other Down Falls of Self-Objectification

And maybe it won’t surprise you when I tell you that self-objectification is associated with so many other negatives.

Sex isn’t likely to be that fulfilling if you are focused on what you look like rather than how your body feels during the experience. If you’re doing that spectating thing where you’re watching yourself rather than experiencing the moment, you’re probably missing out on a lot. So it makes sense that things like sexual satisfaction and sexual functioning are worse when you objectify yourself. [8] (Learn more about body image and sexuality here.)

People who self-objectify are also more likely to feel ashamed of their bodies[9] (no matter what they look like), have lower feelings of self-worth,[10] and have more depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.[11]

In short, self-objectification is terribly harmful…but most of us are doing it.

So What Do We Do to Fix It?

Just like a number of other things I’ve mentioned on this site, body image is an area in which strengthening your sense of self will help. That’s because having a strong sense of self means that YOU get to decide what’s right for you, not others. You get to define who you are and you don’t allow others to define your worth.

In this case, that means rejecting idealized images of what you think you “should” look like in favor of appreciating what you do look like. But more than that, it’s about appreciating who you are regardless of what you look like.

Just like with everything else related to having a reflected sense of self (letting others define who you are and what you’re worth), the first step is recognizing ways that you are doing this so that you can stop.

  • What expectations are you setting about how you think you should look based on what you see around you?
  • Do those feel natural and fulfilling to you?
  • Are you comfortable in your own skin and willing to really let others see the real you, or are you hiding behind makeup, eyelashes, or your weight and trying to feel like you measure up in those areas so that you will be worthy of acceptance and love?

Let me say this again clearly.

You already are worthy of acceptance and love and that has nothing to do with what you look like.

How to be happy with your bodyDo you think that your kids wish you’d lose that extra 10 or 50 pounds you’ve been carrying around or do you think they love it when you’re comfortable enough to put on a swimsuit and jump in the pool with them?

Do you think your friends like you because you have great skin? Or do you think they enjoy talking to you, having fun with you, sharing life experiences with you?

Is your husband (or wife) looking for someone with a perfect body? Or does he (or she) love to spend time with you, have dinner with you, snuggle, walk, talk, support, or do all of the other things that make marriage wonderful?

For a long time, I’ve struggled with wanting to love and appreciate my body but for the right reasons and in the right way, and this can be hard.

I want to work out and eat healthy because I LOVE my body and want to keep it healthy, not because I HATE my body and want to punish it or get it to a place that I think will make me love it more. (Spoiler alert: there is no such place when you’re objectifying yourself.)

I love what Drs. Lindsey and Lexie Kite teach about your body:

Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.

And that positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good, it’s knowing your body is good, regardless of how it looks.[12]

Your body is not something for other people to evaluate and appraise, it’s something for you to live in, something you use to experience all the joys of life in (hello warm chocolate chip cookies), and something you care for because you’re worth it.

And that has nothing to do with what it looks like.

As you learn to strengthen your sense of self, you can shed the expectations that others have for you or that you believe they have for you and as you do this, you can be more comfortable in your own skin.

Maybe someday you’ll even toss your head back, thrust out your arms, and twirl.

(If body image and self-objectification are a real struggle for you, as it is for so many of us—myself included, I cannot recommend the book More than a Body highly enough. Get it today. It’s so worth it and will really help you see ways that you are defining yourself by the world’s standards of beauty and how to shed those false ideals. You can also read more at https://www.morethanabody.org.)

Positive body image and overcoming self-objectification

[1] Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly, 21(2), 173-206.

[2] Buote, V. M., Wilson, A. E., Strahan, E. J., Gazzola, S. B., & Papps, F. (2011). Setting the bar: Divergent sociocultural norms for women’s and men’s ideal appearance in real-world contexts. Body image8(4), 322-334.

[3] National Eating Disorders Association. (2002). Statistics: Eating disorders and their precursors.

[4] https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders

[5] Bissell, K. L., Zhou, P. (2004). Must-see TV or ESPN: Entertainment and sports media exposure and body-image distortion in college women. Journal of Communication, 54, 5–21.

[6] Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly, 21(2), 173-206.

[7] Strelan, P., & Hargreaves, D. (2005). Women who objectify other women: The vicious circle of objectification?. Sex Roles52(9-10), 707-712.

[8] Steer, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). The role of self-objectification in women’s sexual functioning. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology27(3), 205-225.

[9] Calogero, R. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2009). Potential implications of the objectification of women’s bodies for women’s sexual satisfaction. Body image6(2), 145-148.

[10] Wilkins, A. C., & Miller, S. A. (2017). Secure girls: Class, sexuality, and self-esteem. Sexualities20(7), 815-834.

[11] Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly, 21(2), 173-206.

[12] https://www.morethanabody.org/book-more-than-a-body

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