Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Object Lessons: A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Objectified Body Consciousness in Women

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Object Lessons: A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Objectified Body Consciousness in Women

Article excerpt

Theorists have increasingly emphasized the importance of the sociocultural context in the development of women's body experience. As a result, mental health professionals working with individuals suffering from negative body experiences should be apprised of culturally relevant theories. One such theory, objectified body consciousness theory, proposes that cultural constructions of the female body as an object and expectations of physical and sexual appeal lead to a myriad of negative mental health outcomes for women. This study investigated the relationship among objectification experiences, sociocultural attitudes toward appearance, and objectified body consciousness. Findings provide strong support for a feminist and sociocultural understanding of the development of objectified body consciousness. Implications for mental health counselors and for research are presented.

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Part of the experience of being a woman, particularly in Western cultures, is being looked at and evaluated by others. Research findings indicate that women are gazed at more than men and that women are more likely to feel "looked at" in interpersonal gatherings (McKinley & Hyde, 1996; Nigro, Hill, Gelbein, & Clark, 1988). In addition, men direct more nonreciprocated gaze toward women than vice versa (Bente, Donaghy, & Suwelack, 1998; Mulac, Studley, Wiemann, & Bradac, 1987), and men's gazing is frequently accompanied by sexually evaluative remarks (Fromme & Beam, 1974; Gardner, 1980; Henley, 1977). Increasingly, women's experiences of such scrutiny and sexualized appraisal are being explored as an important area of study. In particular, scholars from various disciplines have begun to examine Western culture's widespread practice of sexually objectifying women's bodies and have begun to explore the physical and psychological consequences associated with such objectification (Bordo, 1993; Calogero, 2004; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Kaschak, 1992; McKinley & Hyde; Roberts & Gettman, 2004). What has emerged is a critique of U.S. culture's fixation on the female body and a recognition that women's bodies are inscribed with complex social, economic, and political meanings. Specifically, researchers and mental health professionals have located the female body as the site wherein judgment regarding body weight, shape, and attractiveness is waged (Fredrickson & Roberts; McKinley & Hyde).

There is abundant research examining the experiences of women and their physical bodies, particularly in the areas of dieting, eating disorders, body image, body satisfaction, and body esteem (e.g., Cook-Cottone & Phelps, 2003; Palladino-Green, & Pritchard, 2003; Stice & Whitenton, 2002). Findings indicate that a large proportion of women feel dissatisfied with their bodies, constantly monitor their weight and diet, and most perceive themselves as overweight, regardless of the accuracy of this assessment (e.g., Allaz, Bernstein, Rouget, Archinard, & Morabia, 1998; Emslie, Hunt, & Mcintyre, 2001; Rodin, Silberstein, & Striegel-Moore, 1985). A recent meta-analysis of 222 body image studies from the past 50 years revealed continual increases in women's body dissatisfaction (Feingold & Mazzella, 1998). Furthermore, women are becoming more concerned about their weight at younger ages (Cavanaugh & Lemberg, 1999) with girls as young as five expressing anxiety about weight and body shape (Davison, Markey, & Birch, 2000). Finally, researchers have suggested that females constitute 90% of the eating-disordered population (Murnen & Smolak, 1997).

Body related disturbances remain a major health concern for women. Dissatisfaction with shape and size is so common among women that labels such as "normative discontent" (Rodin et al., 1985, p. 267), "obsession," "tyranny of slenderness" (Chernin, 1981, p. 3), and "cult of thinness" (Hesse-Biber, 1996, p. 5) have been used widely. …

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