The Connection Between Self-Objectification and Disordered Eating
An aspect of harm that often results from self-objectification.
Objectification theory states that women are chronically sexually objectified in Westernized societies (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996). Objectification is the importance attached to certain body attributes, of one’s own body or of others, that are deemed essential for meeting societal beauty standards. Self-objectification can be described as an individual “behaviorally investing in their body as an object” (Calogero, 2010).
This might be actualized through posting sexual images of one’s body online, looking in the mirror and focusing on body parts one dislikes, or starving oneself to become a certain size. It can be seen at its most extreme through plastic surgery, the literal surgical crafting of particular body parts in order to try and meet a narrow standard set by others. As a result of these toxic cultural pressures, many girls and women learn to focus on how their bodies appear rather than what they can do, and this can lead to disordered eating.
Anorexia nervosa, one eating disorder, carries a particularly high risk of suicide, specifically 18–31 times that of the general population (Smith, Zuromski, & Dodd, 2018). Bulimia nervosa carries a risk of suicide seven times higher than the general population.
Eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with one person dying every hour as a direct result of their eating disorder (The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness).
Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, after asthma and obesity (Eating Recovery Center).
Four out of ten people have experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has (Eatingdisorderhope.com), though activist and author Jean Kilbourne says, “if you change the wording from ‘eating disorder’ to ‘disordered eating’, the statistic will be far higher.”
Eating disorders are more specific, diagnosable, and found in the DSM-IV. Disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder (Eatright.org). For this literature review, I will be focusing on the concept of disordered eating.
Eating disorders and disordered eating wreak havoc on women’s lives, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Since this is an issue that causes significant harm to women, it must be a research area of greater concern and effort. Women’s lives depend on it.
Previous and related research
Self-objectification is a relatively limited field in research. This includes the connection between self-objectification and disordered eating. A connection has been established, though, between self-objectification and harmful outcomes for women.
From the research thus far, self-objectification is found to have consequences on the mental and emotional health of women, including it resulting in sexual issues, anxiety, and depression (Calogero, 2011).
One study, The Price of Sexy: Viewers Perceptions of a Sexualized versus Non-sexualized Facebook Profile Photograph (Daniels and Zurbriggen, 2014), found that women who used sexualized profile photos on social media were rated by others as less physically attractive, less socially attractive, less competent, and having less self-respect as compared with photos of the same woman but those which were not sexualized.
Moreno, Swanson, Royer, & Roberts (2011) add to the idea of potential social costs of self-objectification in their study of college men who reported that sexualized social media images increase their expectations for sexual activity with the profile owner but decrease their interest in pursuing a dating relationship with her.
Ashley Mears, former fashion model and a sociologist and professor at Boston University, echoes this same sentiment in her research and book, Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit (2020). She found that while many men reported loving to look at, and even desiring women who sexually self-objectify for sexual activity and conquest, they often feel disinterest in committed romantic relationships with them.
Since the harms that researchers have uncovered thus far about self-objectification are significant to women in varying ways, it seems likely, given compelling research about other consequences of self-objectification, that there is a connection with disordered eating.
The Correlation Between Disordered Eating and Self-Objectification
With the objectification of women being a pervasive practice in our culture, self-objectification has become a learned result for many women. The pressure to conform to feminine beauty ideals, which are narrow, rigid, and homogenized, is unavoidable and ever in women’s and even girl's faces. By age six, many American girls already pick up on this objectification and sexualization of their bodies, expressing the idea of dressing in revealing and sexualized ways in order to be liked, to appease, and to be paid attention to (Chemaly, 2018).
Self-objectification prompts women to break their bodies down into separate parts and assess these individual parts, as one would objects, and against a certain narrow standard. For example, “my stomach isn’t flat enough,” “my legs are too short,” or “my breasts are too small” are common vocalizations of insecurity by girls and women. Each part of them is an object, separate from the whole, and when one begins to see their body as separate parts, some that measure up and others that do not, this can encourage disordered eating patterns. As Healthline points out, beauty standards can and often do lead to body obsession.
In one study, The Role of Self-Objectification in Disordered Eating, Depressed Mood, and Sexual Functioning Among Women (Tiggemann & Williams, 2011), it was found that the internalization of defining oneself and one’s worth by their attractiveness “plays an important role in the development of mental health issues in young women,” including disordered eating.
In particular, Tiggemann and Williams concluded that self-objectification plays a crucial role in the development of mental health issues in young women. Self-objectification was significantly associated with body image and eating disturbances by Jongenelis, Byrne, and Pettigrew (2014) in their research, Self-Objectification, Body Image Disturbance, and Eating Disorder Symptoms in Young Australian Children.
A girl-fueled intergenerational activist group that promotes the empowerment of women, SPARK Movement, uncovered that self-objectification is related to teenagers’ eating disordered attitudes and behaviors. Girls who thought about themselves often in terms of their appearance were more likely to be self-conscious or ashamed of their bodies and engage in disordered eating behaviors.
Selfie photographs, another form of self-objectification and one that has grown pervasive, can be problematic since these are a clear reflection of exactly what girls and women are taught throughout their lives: they are images to be looked at and assessed by others. Selfies are carefully posed, styled, and edited one-dimensional images of otherwise multi-dimensional human beings for others to gaze at, size up, and comment on.
Selfies posted on social media are not just images taken of a woman for herself; they are images she takes of herself for others to see. As a result, such a culture of comparison and ultimately, of self-objectification can promote unhealthy practices like disordered eating, which women might fall prey to in an attempt at achieving a certain look deemed ideal by mass media and consumer culture.
Selfie-Objectification: The Role of Selfies in Self-Objectification and Disordered Eating in Young Women (Cohen, Newton-John, & Slater, 2018) asserted that social media selfies, and specifically, young women’s behavior with regard to their selfies, played an important role in body image issues and disordered eating. Selfie behaviors such as carefully posing for pictures, spending time assessing and editing them, and then feeling validation from viewer feedback, were all self-objectifying behaviors that positioned women to scrutinize their own image from an observer’s perspective.
This study found that the degree of one’s investment in their photos (the effort put into posing for and editing them) was significantly associated with thin-ideal internalization and even bulimia. In theme with this idea, Rachel Calogero (2004) discovered in her research, A Test of Objectification Theory: The Effect of the Male Gaze on Appearance Concerns in College Women, that women anticipating a male gaze produced significantly greater body shame and social physique anxiety than men anticipating a female gaze, which can be tied into the argument against selfie images, possible results of self-objectification, and a connection with disordered eating.
Self-objectification arises from the age-old, problematic narrative that women’s sexuality, as well as their looks and bodies, should be crafted carefully toward garnering the male gaze, desire, and culture’s approval. Because of this way of thinking, women who do not feel they fit into the narrow, rigid, unforgiving stereotype may feel much pressure to find a way to do so, and by any means possible. This can usher in behaviors like disordered eating.
Our culture of objectification toward women is toxic and harmful. It can result in costs to the mental, emotional, and physical health of women, including depression, anxiety, sexual issues, surgically altering one’s body for cosmetic reasons, and disordered eating patterns.
The narrow, nearly impossible standard that our culture sets for how a woman should look results in much emotional, psychological, and as a result, physical damage to women.
While some research has been conducted in the area of self-objectification, as well as between this and disordered eating, it is a field that, both, needs far more research, and that then begs for follow-up action so that we might help challenge, reverse, and put a stop to these unhealthy cultural messages to women. The quality of women’s lives, as well as their physical and emotional health, depends on it.
Areas for Future Research
The connection between women’s mental and physical health, and the toxic narrative toward females in our culture, is a field with limited study. Strides have been made in this area and research is happening, but not nearly enough. More studies should be conducted and with a higher number of participants about how these societal narratives affect women, both in the immediate as well as over the long-term.
Calogero, R., Tantleff-Dunn, S., & Thompson, J. K. (2011). Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions. American Psychological Association.
Calogero, R; Davis, W; and Thompson, J. (2005). The Role of Self-Objectification in the Experience of Women with Eating Disorders. Sex Roles (52) 43–50.
Calogero, R. (2004). A Test of Objectification Theory: The Effect of the Male Gaze on Appearance Concerns in College Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly 28 (1) 16–21.
Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Atria Books.
Chmielewski, J. (2013). Self-Objectification Leads to Eating Disorders (and Not Just For Girls). Sparkmovement.org
Chua, T. H., & Chang, L. (2016). Follow Me and Like My Beautiful Selfies: Singapore Teenage Girls’ Engagement in Self-Presentation and Peer Comparison on Social Media. Computers in Human Behavior, 190–197.
Cohen, R., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2018). ‘Selfie’-objectification: The role of selfies in self-objectification and disordered eating in young women. Computers in Human Behavior, 68–74.
Daniels, E. A., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2016). The Price of Sexy: Viewers Perceptions of Sexualized Versus Non-Sexualized Facebook Profile Photograph. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2–14.
Fardouly, J., Willburger, B., & Vartanian, L. (2018). Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification. News Media & Society, 1380–1395.
Jongenelis, M; Byrne, S; & Pettigrew, S. (2014). Self-Objectification, Body Image Disturbance, and Eating Disorder Symptoms in Young Australian Children. Body Image, 11 (3) 290–302.
Lonergan, A. R., Bussey, K., Fardouly, J., Griffiths, S., Murray, S. B., Hay, P., . . . Mitchison, D. (2020). Protect Me From My Selfie: Examining the Association Between Photo-Based Social Media Behaviors and Self-Reported Eating Disorders in Adolescents. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 485–496.
Mears, A. (2020). Very Important People: Status and Beauty on the Global Party Circuit. Princeton Press.
Tiggemann, M & Williams, E. (2011). The Role of Self-Objectification in Disordered Eating, Depressed Mood, and Sexual Functioning Among Women: A Comprehensive Test of Objectification Theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly.
Vandenbosch, L., & Eggermont, S. (2012). Understanding sexual objectification: a comprehensive approach toward media exposure and girls’ internalization of beauty ideals, self-objectification, and body surveillance. Journal of Communication, 869–887.