With summer upon us, many women will go to the mall to revamp their closet with this year’s latest trends. After all, how are you going to get the attention of your cute neighbor if you’re wearing the same boring clothes you wore last year? Let’s be honest: you’re not. But with a less-than-stellar economy, more women are cutting back on their wardrobe allowance and are instead opting to purchase only a few ‘I can’t live without you’ pieces. So ladies, how do you decide whether to replace your old shorts with the forever-sexy daisy dukes or the back in style, more modest high-waisted shorts?
Seems obvious, right?: The more skin the better. Before you head straight for the ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ racks, however, consider this: studies indicate that females showing too much skin can result in objectification, or the perception of a woman as a physical object rather than as a human being.1 To determine if we literally view women who wear less as objects, researchers had 78 college students view photos of scantily clad women (who wore either a bathing suit or underwear) and bare-chested men (who wore jeans without a shirt on).
Interestingly, participants viewed photos in both upright and upside-down positions.
Why did researchers show participants the photos two different ways? Well, the way our brain processes images varies depending on whether we’re looking at an object or a person. For objects, our brains use analytical processing, which involves the simple recognition of stimuli or images (e.g., the ability to distinguish a ball from a cat), but for faces and people, our brains use configural processing, which involves stimulus recognition in addition to making meaningful relationship associations (e.g., that is my favorite cat, Mr. Whiskers). When your brain uses configural processing (like it does for faces and people), it has a hard time recognizing images when they are flipped upside down. Analytical processing of images makes it easier to recognize upside-down images of objects. In other words, our brain uses analytical processes when it recognizes objects both upside down and right-side-up, and our brain uses configural processes when it recognizes faces right-side-up. So what does this mean for the pictures of half-naked men and women?
Participants recognized men more when they were in an upright position than when they were upside down, just like they should when their brain processes faces or people. However, participants recognized women equally well, regardless of whether she was upside down or not, just like they would when viewing an object. What this tells us is that participant’s brains were using analytical processes, or processes that aid in the recognition of objects, when they attempted to recognize women who were dressed in provocative attire. In other words, compared to scantily clad men, participants literally saw half naked women as objects rather than people.
Revealing attire poses a variety of other problems for women as well. Studies indicate that men and women view young girls,2 and women view other women,3 as less intelligent and less capable when those girls and women are dressed in more sexually revealing clothing. Moreover, the less capable a man thinks a woman is the more likely he is to objectify her, and vice versa: the more a man objectifies a woman the less capabilities he perceives her to have. 3 Put simply: The less you cover, the more likely you will symbolize a sexual accessory and little else.
Another issue that women face when they opt for a more revealing wardrobe is that both men and women make assumptions about their sexual behaviors. One study showed men and women in an introductory psychology class two pictures of a woman: One picture depicted the woman in conservative attire (a blouse and slacks), while the other picture showed the same woman in more provocative attire (a revealing dress that accentuated both the woman’s legs and breasts). Both men and women perceived women who wore the revealing dress as more sexually active, less faithful in marriages, and more likely to use sex for personal gain.4 Even more problematic, both men and women perceived women in more revealing clothing as more likely to get robbed or raped.4 Your choice of shorts may seem simple, but your clothing may be inferred to mean much more than you think.
It is important to keep in mind that these studies focus on the perceptions that others have, and such perceptions are not necessarily accurate. There are clear double standards for men and women in society, and although such double standards have certainly improved there is still much room for progression. Women should be able to wear whatever clothes make them feel comfortable and confident without having to worry about the negative opinions that men and women might potentially form. There is no justification for the ill-treatment or negative judgments of women based on their choice of clothing attire. Although this is true, objectification of women is still a harsh reality, and these findings provide some explanation for why such objectification takes place.
Now, when you’re sifting through the racks at your favorite stores in the mall, do you choose daisy dukes or high-waisted shorts? This season, opt for the high-waisted shorts. Cover up a bit and leave some room for the imagination. Grab your neighbor’s attention for the person, not the object, you are.
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1Bernard, P., Gervais, S., Allen, J., Campomizzi, S., & Klein, O. (2012). Integrating sexual objectification with object versus person recognition: The sexualized-body-inversion hypothesis. Psychological Science, 23, 469-471.
2Graff, K., Murnen, S. K., & Smolak, L. (2012). Too sexualized to be taken seriously? perceptions of a girl in childlike clothing vs. sexualizing clothing. Sex Roles, 66, 764-775. doi: 10.1007/s00099-012-0145-3
3Gurung, R. A. R., & Chrouser, C. J. (2007). Predicting objectification: Do provocative clothing and observer characteristics matter? Sex Roles, 57, 91-99. doi: 10.1007/s1119-007-9219-z
Emily J Walsh graduated from Monmouth University with a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Criminal Justice. She has conducted research on the impact gender stereotypes have on the self and on one’s perception of others.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.