Dinner table sexism

Examining the relationship between family, body esteem and “benevolent sexism”


Few people would admit to being sexist or to holding prejudiced against women.

Outwardly, discrimination against women in our culture is socially unacceptable.

Yet, research suggests that sexism continues to persist. Except now it’s taken another subtle but potentially more dangerous form.

The full story is not in the media’s portrayal of women, nor is it solely the skinny images of advertising and fashion model culture.

In fact, it lives with us. Sexism can be perpetuated in our homes by the ones we love, according to research from Marquette University professors.

Recent research by Dr. Stephen Franzoi and Dr. Debra Oswald, professors of psychology, supports this idea. The two Marquette University faculty members co-wrote a study titled “Experiencing Sexism and Young Women’s Body Esteem.”

The article consists of two studies that address how young women’s body esteem is affected by hostile or even “benevolent sexism” from family members and everyday experiences.

Many people view sexism as the open acts or policies of gender discrimination. These are easy to identify, and are referred to as “hostile sexism.”

However, a pervasive but harder-to-identify form is benevolent sexism, characterized by beliefs and actions that appear outwardly positive, but actually undermine gender equality.

For the study, a series of surveys were given to 86 first-year female college students and their parents at the beginning and end of a year in college. It sought to determine if the female’s body esteem correlated with parental support of sexist beliefs.

The first survey asked participants to rate their attitudes on topics about traditional feminine roles and characteristics.

The other survey had them rate 35 of their own body parts. This was Franzoi’s Body Esteem Scale, which he designed in 1984. It measures how participants view their bodies in terms of sexual attractiveness, weight and physical condition.

Results were troubling, according to the researchers. Women who had higher body esteems were more likely to have fathers who practiced benevolent sexism.

The research suggests that benevolent sexism is so deeply ingrained in American culture that women experience it daily. The majority of people don’t realize they’re encountering it.

In fact, men and women can actually promote it.

“This pattern of sexist behavior restricts what the woman can and cannot do by setting up rewards and punishments when they engage in gender non-conforming behaviors,” Oswald said. “Truly loving behavior toward a partner does not have this contingency.”

Flickr photo by Keoni Cabral

The research of Franzoi and Oswald states that benevolent sexism is often perceived as rewarding. The study provided the example of a father who gives his daughter a disproportionate amount of economic support because she is his “special little princess.”

While the father and daughter may view this as familial love, it promotes the belief that women cannot provide for themselves economically. Ultimately it hinders the daughter’s personal development.

When a father holds beliefs that women have a proper role in society, he is more likely to encourage his daughter to perpetuate those social roles. For example, wearing makeup or certain clothes to complement traditional feminine appearances.

They are restrictions misunderstood as love.

When involved in the sexist act, women are less likely to identify it as sexist or restricting. The seemingly positive nature often increases the women’s body esteem, thereby decreasing efforts to change the social structure that promotes benevolent sexism and male dominance.

Franzoi stated that questioning a personal worldview is one way to identify restricting behaviors.

“I would encourage people to pay attention to their habitual way of thinking … and to ask themselves whether their gendered habits limit them in fully developing their potential and the potential of those around them.”

Oswald reflected a similar sentiment in her advice for challenging this form of sexism.

“It is important that women look at the broader patterns of their experiences and if they realize the behaviors, while seemingly nice, put them in restricted roles then they need to work to challenge the perpetrators,” Oswald said.

Benevolent sexism in our society is simply looking through one, of many, cultural lenses. (Flickr photo by Matt Clegg)

People use a cultural lens to view society. Acknowledging this can help a person begin to question underlying beliefs. No matter how widely held a belief is, what is perceived as “normal” is just one shared perspective and not necessarily correct.

As seen in the study, benevolent sexism exists in all areas, including the home. It’s the widespread nature of it that conditions people to view it as normal. Franzoi used an example of a fish.

“If you’re a fish, you do not realize you’re wet because ‘wet’ is all you know,” he explained. “So you need to gain another perspective from which to critically analyze your culture and the manner in which members are socialized,” Franzoi said.

Both Franzoi and Oswald emphasized education as the best way for people to identify and challenge benevolent sexism.

This type of education is often overlooked because benevolent sexism can seem outwardly positive. Something as simple as a man holding the door open for a woman can be benevolent sexism, despite it seeming polite.

Examining behaviors and tendencies is one method to distinguish kindness from sexism, Franzoi notes.

“The way you can separate benevolent sexism from polite behavior is if the person doesn’t single out only women as the recipients of their polite actions, but does it equally for both sexes.”

In the study, Oswald and Franzoi call for a parenting style that empowers children. Parents should provide praise and support for their daughter’s efforts, rather than a model that creates paternal dependence.

The findings correlate female high body esteem with acts that make them feel “special.” However, this type of sexism undermines the long-term esteem of women because it binds them to gender-specific roles.

When women step out of such a socially acceptable role they are often targeted by acts of hostile sexism, which has been linked to lowering body esteem.

“Sexism has evolved into a system where women are rewarded for engaging in the traditional feminine role and punished women who engage in nontraditional roles that may challenge the traditional gender relations and power balance,” Oswald said.

Understanding cultural factors is critical to helping women with body esteem trouble.

Difficulties with body esteem have been linked to mental health issues, such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Those at greater risk of body esteem issues must learn to effectively cope and respond to both forms of sexism.

The study notes that cultural sexism cannot be easily defined by one factor causing another. While benevolent sexism from fathers has been linked to body esteem in daughters, more research must be done to determine if a third variable exists.

Body esteem and benevolent sexism remains a topic of study for Franzoi. With the help of his doctoral student, Michaela Engdahl, he is currently studying this in heterosexual romantic relationships.

Over the past six years Franzoi has also worked with Marquette graduate Dr. Katie Frost to gather data and revise the Body Esteem Scale. The updated scale will account for recent cultural changes in the ways women and men evaluate their bodies.

“Hopefully this revised Body Esteem Scale will be used by researchers for the next quarter century, like the original Body Esteem Scale has been used,” Franzoi said.

Research and reporting by Wyatt Massey, a junior studying writing-intensive English and advertising. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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