Study: Everyday women still reduced to body parts

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August 2nd, 2012

Omaha, NE – A new study shows women are being reduced to their sexual body parts. And who’s reducing them? Just about everybody.

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When we look at images, or people, there are two ways we can examine them: as a whole, or in parts. Say, a mosaic made up of tiny images. Our brains can either process that image as a whole or as each individual piece of that whole. A new study by Dr. Sarah Gervais, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, suggests we use those different parts of our brains when we look at men and women.

The presentation of women in the media often reduces women to their body parts, highlighting their sexuality over their wholeness. But a new study suggests men and women perceive everyday women in the same way.

“The striking finding here is that typically when we identify and recognize people, we recognize them much better when we have their entire bodies to look at,” Gervais said. “However, when it came to women… people are actually much better at recognizing women’s sexual body parts when they were just presented in isolation rather than in the context of entire body.”

In the study, which was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Gervais presented pictures of regular, everyday men and women, fully clothed, to a group of participants, who were of similar age and demographics to the people in the images. Then, she had them complete a recognition task. The participants were asked to identify the original man or woman they saw from a “distracter image” which comprised a sexual body part. The results were consistent: both men and women recognized the men in the images by their whole body, and the women by their body parts.

Gervais said based on previous research, she wasn’t all that surprised at the results. “And yet, I was still pretty surprised to actually see that it came out,” she said, “because one would hope that we would only do this for women in the media because, after all, they are sort of objects.”

“The pictures that we see of women in the media are often modified using Photoshop, they’re often a constellation of different women put together into one picture,” Gervais said. “They’re not representing actual people. So, although not entirely surprising, it was still pretty striking that we did this for everyday, ordinary women.”

Gervais said why people view women the way they do is still up for debate. It could be evolutionary or social conditioning, she said, and the answer to that is still several studies away.

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