My Eyes Are Up Here: Study Finds Women Are Often Seen as a Collection of Body Parts

August 9, 2012  |  
By Justin Ray

Women have often claimed that parts of their bodies are seen before they’re perceived as a full person. Well, science may have confirmed this idea. A new study has found that people see women as a collection of specific body parts while men are perceived as people as a whole, perhaps explaining why women often feel objectified.

The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, is based on the premise that the human body is prone to seeing objects as they are or as a collection of parts constituting a whole. For instance, when you look at an image that is made up of other images, it takes two different cognitive actions to see both pictures. Essentially, when looking at images of men people tended to look at the image as a whole while images of women were identified by parts.
Researchers presented people with images of average looking men and women two at a time. Then the images would disappear and become replaced by two images of body parts, one from an image already seen as well as a new image that is a modified version of a male or female already presented.
Results were universal; researchers found women were more easily identified by their body parts, specifically sexual appendages. Men, however, were only identified when entire body images were presented.
The study is the first to connect the way we mentally interpret objects to sexual objectification, commented assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Sarah Gervais. She said to “Local processing underlies the way we think about objects: houses, cars and so on. But global processing should prevent us from that when it comes to people. We don’t break people down to their parts — except when it comes to women, which is really striking. Women were perceived in the same ways that objects are viewed.”
What was also surprising about the study was that the results were universal; men and women both viewed the female body as parts rather than a whole. “We can’t just pin this on the men. Women are perceiving women this way, too,” Gervais said. “It could be related to different motives. Men might be doing it because they’re interested in potential mates, while women may do it as more of a comparison with themselves. But what we do know is that they’re both doing it.”
Having stated  these results, however, the study does acknowledge a few limits. For one, it’s difficult to make a broad statement about how people perceive objects when people have different cognitive behaviors. Also the images were merely images and not real people, meaning in reality people may perceive objects differently than when in a superficial environment. Finally, all of the images featured people in plain white shirts but in real life women and men may wear clothing that draws eyes to certain areas.
Gervais’ study is a part of a larger line of research meant to assess objectification, generalization, stereotyping among social groups and the consequences of such classifications. “Our findings suggest people fundamentally process women and  men differently, but we are also showing that a very simple manipulation counteracts this effect, and perceivers can be prompted to see women globally, just as they do men,” Gervais said. “Based on these findings, there are several new avenues to explore.”
Further research may link this objectification women experience to body image issues, anxiety and depression. Gervais also said that further work can be done to analyze what causes women to be interpreted in parts and how this process can be changed. In changing factors in the study, researchers found  that people saw women as a whole when it was utterly more convenient for the mind to interpret. Either way, this study is sure to spark up some interesting debates and discussion.

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