Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.
It's estimated that people see up to 5,000 ads a day, many of which depict women in sexually objectifying ways. There are egregious examples, like those infamous Carl's Jr. commercials, as well as subtler examples, like the American Apparel ads that sexualized a female model in a unisex shirt while a male model wore the same shirt fully buttoned up. Some ads make light of rape and domestic violence; some reduce women to a pair of breasts; and some arbitrarily throw a nearly naked woman into the mix because hey, why not? Studies have suggested that when women are exposed to these types of ads en masse, they may internalize the value placed on their appearances, which can lead to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders and depression. But what about men? Are they also affected by these reductive portrayals of women?
In a new study, researchers from The College of Saint Rose and the University of South Florida examined the complicated relationship between ads that sexually objectify women's bodies and the effect they have on both women and men who are bombarded with them each day.
Researchers gathered 437 men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 to react to ads in a lab (though participants were told that they were simply examining the "efficacy of various types of advertisements"). Participants first reported how many hours a week they spent watching television, surfing the Internet, social networking, reading magazines or newspapers, viewing pornography and playing video games. They were then asked to rate how much they agreed with statements like "I would like my body to look like the models who appear in magazines," meant to gauge how much they internalize cultural appearance ideals, and asked to complete a word association task that measured how dissatisfied they were with their bodies.
After that, participants were randomly assigned to two groups: one that would view six ads which sexually objectified women and another that would look at six ads which did not (according to pre-tests performed by the researchers). The researchers then had all participants answer a few questions about the women in the ads and report their body satisfaction again.
The researchers found that both men and women who internalized cultural appearance ideals had higher levels of body dissatisfaction after viewing ads that sexually objectified women. This effect was greater for women, but it held true for men, too. No such trend was found for the group who viewed the neutral ads.
According to the researchers, these findings "may be difficult to generalize beyond the young adult population," since they only included participants between the ages of 18 and 25. They also only reflect a short-term dip in body satisfaction, so more research is needed to see how long these detrimental effects last.
These findings suggest that, when people talk about sexual objectification in the media, it's important to understand that sexualized ads may not only be harming women -- they could very well be hurting men, too.
Recognizing that men's self-esteem can be affected by degrading depictions of women could help move the conversation forward and lead to progress (a.k.a. fewer ads that make light of rape and domestic abuse or reduce women to pairs of breasts or feature them unclothed just because). Not to mention, the men whose body images are negatively affected by these ads may be able to seek out help if they need it.
At the end of the day, everybody suffers when women are reduced to their sex appeal.