When a woman takes off her clothes, does it change her mind? The theory of sexual objectification says that the more we focus on a person's body, the less we think of her brains. But a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology attempts to establish the upside of an objectifying gaze.
Sexual objectification can apply to anyone who's viewed physically instead of mentally, but it's a phenomenon that predominantly affects women—one sweeping study of magazine ads found that on the whole, "women’s bodies are prominently displayed, whereas men are more often pictured by their faces." The practice harms women both mentally and physically. Research shows that a focus on the body at the exclusion of the mind is "linked with disordered eating, cognitive distraction, depression, and even self harm." Women who are subjected to "a long look up and down from a man" go on to perform "worse at a math exam."
But researchers Kurt Gray, Joshua Knobe, Mark Sheskin, Paul Bloom, and Lisa Feldman Barrett are challenging the idea that objectification is all bad. They asked study participants to assess a selection of men and women in various states of undress to determine how clothing affects their view of a subject's mental capabilities. Then, they asked the subjects to administer electrical shocks to both clothed and shirtless people to assess their perception of the subjects' capability to feel. The researchers found that focusing on a person's body does not strictly "de-mentalize" her, but rather "redistributes" our perception of her faculties. Objectified people are perceived to be experiencers, not actors. When we perceive a woman through her body, she appears "more capable of pain, pleasure, desire, sensation, and emotion but lacking in agency."
The mind-body divide points to the underpinnings of the human moral universe. The more agency a person has, the more we hold them responsible when they hurt others. And the more they're capable of feeling, the more we feel responsible for protecting them from harm. The researchers claim, then, that objectified people—who can't do much, but can feel deeply—"may have more moral status, not less." They list this as one of the potential "positive aspects" of objectification, in that it "may lead others to protect this person from additional pain."
In fact, the research speaks less to the upside of sexual objectification and more to the versatility of its downsides. Seeing people as bodies instead of minds can manifest itself as either hostile or paternal sexism—women are either too dim to think for themselves, or too sensitive to take care of themselves. Both serve to increase a man's power over them.