Monday, February 14, 2011

Male Gaze X ≠ Female Beauty Y

Interesting study (PDF only) on how being objectified affects women's math performance. Female and male participants answered math questions after being given objectifying looks by a faux study partner of the opposite sex. The female participants who'd been gawked at scored more poorly compared with the control group. (Men answered the same in both conditions.) Thoughts:

1) The headline of the PsychCentral article sent to me by an alert friend reads "Are Good Looks Problematic for Women?" But the study literally had nothing to do with whether a woman was good-looking. It was a study about the objectifying male gaze, not a study about women looking so fiiiiiiiiine that the poor fellows couldn't help but stare. You could attempt to argue that conventionally attractive women are logically the object of that gaze more frequently--but A) you'd be wrong; any New York City woman can attest that simply by possessing a vagina and being roughly between the ages of 12 and 85, you become the object of that gaze, and B) that's a leap that wasn't explicitly made in the writeup. It's a case of erroneous reading of the study or erroneous reporting of it, and in either case it not only grossly misrepresents the intent of the study but effectively turns the ideas presented into women's own fault for being so damned good-looking as to affect our math skills. 

Now, plenty of news outlets accurately represented the study: "Ogling by Men Subtracts from Women's Math Scores" (LiveScience); "Women Subject to Objectifying Gazes Show Decreased Math Ability" (Science Daily). But PsychCentral and New Beauty both took this it's-cuz-they're-purty angle. Funnily enough, New Beauty is a plastic surgery magazine—do they want their readers to think they're bad at math? I'm guessing that New Beauty has some weirdo agenda about beauty and ability, but in any case this is a textbook example of reporters needing to check their assumptions. This study has nothing to do with how the women looked and everything to do with how the men were looking.

Yes, it was tempting to dot the "oo"s to look like nipples, but I am a lay-dee.

2) Lowered math skills aside, the study had some other fascinating angles: Objectified women were more likely to interact with their ogling partners, suggesting that there's higher motivation for a woman to engage with someone who is sexualizing her. I don't think this means women secretly want to be objectified (that varies by woman and situation), but rather that we internalize the position of being sexualized as our responsibility. 

And boy, do we ever. There's plenty of feminist rhetoric on girls and women being trained to be polite even in objectifying situations and how some men prey on that--and yes, some do--but there's something else at work here, which The Hairpin (via Beauty Schooled) makes a funny about, and which I will drain the humor from!: 

It's not that pretty girls aren't good at math. Or that pretty girls think they don't have to do math because they're so pretty. Just, when you notice girls are pretty and look at their prettiness, all they can think about is feeling pretty and there's no room in their brains left for math. Or something like that. I can't think straight when you're staring.

And, you know, I am capable of having my cleavage ogled and being competent at my work and patting my head and rubbing my tummy at the same time. But I also know that when I'm aware of being looked at in a sexualized manner, it can feel like the air is being sucked out of me. Whether that means I'm feeling adored by a man I want to adore me, or that I'm freezing because I know the dude halfway down the block is going to give me the treatment, when I'm the object of the gaze it is indeed difficult to stay in a state of flow about things other than my appearance—like, say, math problems. And even as I try to resist it, I find myself engaging in it, even if my engagement is also supposed to be a deflection. I often think that if I just engage more and make it clear that, oh, I have a boyfriend or husband, or just that I'm not looking for a pickup, I'll maintain my nice-girlness but get my point across. So yes, being objectified can make me interact more, much as I wish it didn't.

3) The most surprising part of the study for me was that body awareness and body dissatisfaction wasn't affected by whether a woman was ogled. All women in the study—objectified and the control group—had higher rates of body dissatisfaction during the study than men did, but that was due to their femaleness, not to whether they'd been stared at.

Honestly, I don't know what to make of this. The researchers hypothesized, based on other studies, that body shame would increase with being objectified. So other studies have found that there is a correlation. Now, I try not to get too into any individual study because a lot of it doesn't mean anything; at the same time, I'm writing this post, so clearly I give some credence to it. Personally, my body awareness does increase when I know I'm being sexualized—I may not feel worse or better about my body, but my consciousness of it increases tenfold. Maybe the women in the study were focusing so heavily on their assigned task that between calculating x plus y and interacting with their assigned pair of wandering eyes, they simply forgot to think about their own bodies?

If that's the case, I find that encouraging. Ideally, someone objectifying you should make you think about that person and what sort of interaction you'd like to have (or not have) with that person, not about your body and what signals you fear/hope it might send by its mere existence.


  1. This makes me think about my job - I work in a very male-dominated industry as I sell plumbing fittings (fancy or not, it's plumbing!). When I get looked at in a way that makes me feel self-conscious my stomach sinks and I feel a lot of anxiety and I hate that. I always think, "Why am I thinking about this?"

  2. That's exactly it--it's something that we can't control, and depending on your personality our way of dealing with it might be anxiety, or tension, or engaging with the person doing it, or affecting a persona that isn't really ours, or all of the above. It's not just something that we can decide not to pay attention to; it's embedded into us, not to mention that it's literally right in front of us when we're in the situation! I'm sure there are ways to opt out entirely but I'm still trying to figure out what those are. When it's harassment that's one thing, but unless it's obvious how do you take action against a look?

  3. This is an extension of "stereotype threat." there has been a ton of research shown that when people are non consciously primed, that is, reminded, of a stereotype they will tend to behave in accordance to that stereotype. So, women reminded of femininity perform more poorly on math tests, the presumption being that they are unconsciously drawing from the stereotype that women are bad at math. On the other hand, Asian men reminded of their race perform better on such tests - they are stereotyped to be good at math. Again, this is relative to how well Asian men perform on math tests when not primed (the control group).

    1. Absolutely, it's stereotype threat, but it's interesting that it's this specific manner of femininity that's provoking it. I wonder how participants would have fared on the tests if other stereotypes of femininity were provoked--like, say, women as household economists. It's interesting that it's specific to being sexualized.

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