Objectification Theory: What Is it and What Are its Consequences?

What happens when people are treated like objects? Read all about it here.
Objectification Theory: What Is it and What Are its Consequences?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 16 February, 2023

“I’m more than just a pretty face.” This is a phrase that could very well be printed on a T-shirt. However, if we break it down a bit, we can detect a dichotomy; beauty and body vs. intelligence or other qualities, as if they were mutually exclusive terms. So, what does this have to do with the objectification theory?

It’s almost as if the body were the whole of a person or if there was an added value to be demonstrated, beyond the body itself. As if someone’s value were deposited there.

This is what the theory of objectification is all about: it accounts for the processes involved in the objectification of people, in their reduction to “a single part,” and the consequences that this provokes. Let’s take a closer look at exactly what it is.

What does objectification theory consist of?

Objectification theory emphasizes the processes by which people are treated as objects. The effect is that that which is emphasized, the “thing or object,” takes precedence over the whole person.

While it applies to different cases, such as a critique of capitalism or bosses objectifying their employees (means to an end), it’s most prevalent in relation to women and their bodies. In other words, it often refers to the objectification of women’s and girls’ bodies.

On the other hand, one of its major drawbacks lies in the effect caused by this gaze or this objectual valuation; this occurs in the internalization of the vision of oneself as an object.

For example, when applied to the body in the case of women, this translates into the experience that people will pay more attention to their body and the fact of thinking themselves as more or less valuable depending on it. In this way, the rest of their personal qualities lose importance.

A brief history of objectification theory

Objectification theory.
Objectification theory explains the excessive preoccupation that exists with physical appearance.

In the history of the development of the objectification theory, we can cite many different contributions. One of them comes from the minds of professionals coming from psychology and sociology, such as William James or Charles Cooley, who researched the concept of the mirror self.

This theory argues that what other people see in us has an effect on what we think about ourselves – that is, on our own self-perception.

This impact occurs in three ways: through the ideas we get about how others see and perceive us, according to the judgment we make about them (positive, negative), and by the emotion that it causes in us.

There are even studies that emphasize that by incorporating the vision of “self-esteem”, women may even lose interest in other matters that are not related to the body or in the development of other skills.

We can also cite the contributions of Fredrickson and Roberts, dating from 1997, in which they speak of the role of gender in the differential socialization of men and women. It acts by placing their value on their bodies and, conversely, the power that men attribute to themselves to dispose of them.

Hence, it’s appropriate to mention that objectification has a very marked gender: it particularly affects women. It’s not expressed in the same way in the case of men, since in general, it’s women who are most objectified, especially with regard to their bodies.

This has an impact not only at a social and cultural level (the place and meaning given to women) but also – and considerably – on a psychological level.

We think you may also like to read this article: Body Neutrality: What Is This Trend?

What are the consequences of objectification?

A woman on her phone.
The great pressure that exists in today’s society on women’s bodies can lead to a deterioration in self-esteem at any age.

We live in a society that sets standards about what’s desirable and what isn’t, and this translates into certain mandates about the body. Thus, we find massive prescriptions about “perfect” bodies, which have an impact on the well-being of women and girls.

For example, it’s no coincidence that the highest prevalence of eating disorders is present in women from an early age.

In many cases, the “cult of the body” has become an obsession that is expressed from exaggerated care to endless aesthetic surgeries. Also, we see this in the “eternal youth” that one wants to imprint on the body.

This can lead to a low self-perception with feelings of shame, anxiety, and insecurity for not fitting into this ideal type.

On the other hand, the hypersexualization of bodies is also a symptom of their objectification. Among the consequences at the social level we find – at a more visible and violent level – is the sexual trafficking of women (the body sold as merchandise), sustained by a patriarchal structure of male domination.

However, there are also more subtle forms. such as the free admission of women to a discotheque as “bait” to attract more men. They are, therefore, “the product”.

Objectification can occur in all types of relationships. That is, we’re not only talking about street harassment, but it can also occur in close relationships.

Like this article? You may also like to read: What to do if Your Boyfriend is Macho

What to remember about objectification

First of all, we must be clear about something: the objectification of women and girls is a form of aesthetic violence that dehumanizes people, “fragments” them, and turns them into objects.

It’s necessary to raise awareness about gender stereotypes in order to eliminate them, since they give greater value to the female body and its beauty, instead of promoting other qualities such as intelligence.

On the other hand, and given the consequences on women’s self-esteem, it’s important to dismantle these internalized beliefs, which lead them to perceive themselves as valuable only insofar as they have a body to offer.

It’s also necessary to recognize all the other qualities that a person has beyond “being a pretty face”, as we mentioned at the beginning. A person cannot be reduced to her body.

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