A new study confirms the less than elusive phenomena that men stare at women’s breasts in ways that are best described as an “ogle” or objectifying gaze as a way of evaluating the person before them. What this means is that upon encountering a woman for the first time, men tend to look first at her body and spend less time looking at her face. Specific areas of interest are, of course, the breasts, waist and hips.
To most women, these findings are not novel. It is true that psychological research devotes a lot of its time to proving if things that occur are actually happening the way we as humans perceive them. This study is no exception. However, part of the purpose of studies like these is to discover the in-depth nuances of behavior. What cues are prompting this behavior, and what are the sources of these cues? Are they biological, societal or messages imparted by media?
Other important questions addressed by these types of studies include, what does this behavior mean? How does this behavior translate to other behaviors?
More importantly, are the incidents actually related. For example, say there is a strong correlation between drownings and ice cream sales. One could conclude that ice cream makes people drown. Or, with objective research, one would find that both ice cream sales and drowning rates go up during the summer months, and that the two have no relation to each other. A common phrase in research is, “correlation does not equal causation.”
That is why examining men’s habits when looking at women, even though those habits are well established in common knowledge, is so necessary. Examining the relationships between where men look and how they evaluate women based upon their observations tells us a lot about how perceptions of another person, namely women in this case, tend be formed and what kind of consequences are felt as a result of these perceptions.
What the study confirms is this, men tend to stare at women’s breasts, hips and waist before evaluating them. This was especially true when asked to evaluate their appearances over personality. This type of evaluation is referred to as “objectifying” in the literature produced by the study and was found to yield patterns of evaluation based on body type.
Using technology that tracked the eye movements of the participants, researchers were able to record where gazes fell in on images presented to participants during the experimental process. The study included 36 men and 29 women from a Midwestern University of respectable size. The participants were presented images of women with varying body types and asked to rate them based on the criteria of personality or appearance.
The body types were reflective of social ideals to differing degrees. The high ideal body type was a woman with an “hourglass figure,” meaning she had large breasts and a small waist to hip ratio. Body types then varied all the way to the other extreme, the low ideal figure, which features a woman with small breasts and a bigger hip/waist relation. Men consistently looked to the figure before rating and rated women with the high ideal body type more favorably. They looked to the figure before the face and spent longer on the figure than the face. This was true of those asked to rate based on personality as well. Women with more highly favored body type were still rated higher and this rating was still based disproportionately on their body type than areas such as their face that would hold more indication of personality type.
Men were not the only group to yield this result. The female participants were also recorded as focusing on body type to determine women’s favorability. The effect was less pronounced than men but leads to the discussion that makes the study more meaty than it initially appears.
What does the objectifying male gaze mean to women? Research indicates that it signifies a lot. According to a different study, there are two possible sources for women to learn to self-objectify. The first is from external sources, such as social and media cues, that inform the woman of her tendency to be objectified and normalize the behavior causing it to become an internal process. The second is a self-image issue that drives the woman to seek out social and media cues that reinforce an already preexisting perception of the self as sexual object. The study concluded that external sources informed internal perceptions and that this effect was exacerbated by low self-image. Thus, women are taught to objectify themselves and this lesson is received far better if the woman already does not like herself very much.
This interplay of objectification, internalization and perpetuation permeates society. Evidence of it can be seen far and wide. Even those who are reporting on the outcome of this study have referred to women being evaluated by their “sexual body parts,” intrinsically objectifying women. A more objective and humanizing approach to the discussion would be to refer to those areas as being “sexualized,” because the hips, waist and breasts are not sex organs.
This is not to criticize any reporter, however, as all are imperfect and these tendencies are heavily indoctrinated into our society. It is merely to demonstrate that there is a much deeper meaning to the notion of men “checking out” women. This study clearly confirms that not only do men stare at women’s breasts in order to evaluate them but it also demonstrates women’s tendency to pick up on the cues and objectify themselves and other women.
Written by: Vanessa Blanchard