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August 2015 Policy Study, Number 15-7


The Impact of Self-Objectification on Political Efficacy: Does Self-Image Affect Feelings of Political Adequacy


Literature Review



From the 1970s through the late 1990s, a greater number of women ran and were elected to public office than in years prior. In examining state legislatures in 1971, roughly 4.5 percent of state legislators were female. This number grew to 21.6 percent by 1997 (CAWP, 1999), but growth leveled off and increased by only 2.1 percent over the next 16 years to 23.7 percent of seats in state legislatures in 2013 (NCSL, 2013). Table 1 illustrates the increase and subsequent leveling off of women in state legislatures from 1971-2014 (CAWP, Women in State Legislatures 2015, 2014).


Table 1: Women in State Legislatures (CAWP, 2014)


Corresponding to this increase and subsequent leveling off of growth in the percentage of women in state legislatures, a third wave of feminism emerged in the mid-1990s that focused on female sexual liberation, with the idea that women derive power from their status as a sexual object. This has led to the acceptance of the objectification of the female body, including the objectification of female political candidates. Beyond this, the rise of the internet occurred during the 1990s, creating a correlation between its rise, the rise of third-wave feminism, and the leveling-off of the increasing percentage of women in state legislatures (Heldman & Wade, 2011). In understanding this underrepresentation and stagnation of growth of female elected officials, it is important to consider the justification for this occurrence.


Research investigating the gender gap in politics indicates that, of well-qualified potential candidates, females are less likely than males to consider running for office (Lawless & Fox, 2004). This research cited negative self-perceptions of qualifications and ability to win as a justification for this difference between genders. In understanding that women feel they are less qualified to run for office than their male counterparts, it is possible that these feelings of political inadequacy are the result of self-objectification. The growing phenomenon of the objectification of women in popular culture has become internalized, resulting in self-objectification, and this internalization may cause feelings of political inadequacy, namely, a reduction in internal and external political efficacy rates among women.


Self-objectification is the act of seeing oneself as an object of consumption to be evaluated by others, rather than through non-observable characteristics (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Sexual objectification can occur among males and females, but it occurs with much greater frequency among females (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998). Some blame consumerist American culture for objectifying women, which, in turn, leads to the internalization of the objectification, resulting in self-objectification. Today, American popular culture promotes sexualized messages, exhibited predominantly through the mass media, and these messages are reiterated in personal day-to-day encounters (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998).


The media and self-objectification have a significant relationship. According to Fredrickson and Roberts:


Making matters worse, the mass media’s proliferation of sexualized images of the female body is fast and thorough. Confrontations with these images, then, are virtually unavoidable in American culture. In sum, the sexual objectification of the female body has clearly permeated our cultural milieu; it is likely to affect most girls and women to some degree, no matter who their actual social contacts may be. (1997)

Because of the media’s role in society today, nearly all Americans are exposed to sexual objectification, and the internalization of these ideals leads to self-objectification. Beyond this, the media objectifies women at a much higher rate than men. In a study determining the face-ism index for a given gender, researchers compiled published American photographs in various publications and assigned a proportional number to the face-to-body ratio in each photograph. The study determined that the face-ism index for men was a .65 face-to-body ratio, whereas it was merely .45 for women. This illustrates that women are more often portrayed by their body, whereas men are more often portrayed by their face (Archer, Iritani, Kimes, & Barrios, 1983).


There are many negative psychological effects associated with self-objectification, including shame, anxiety, and interference with motivation and internal awareness (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Self-objectification leads to shame when one continually seeks to “correct” their body. This is especially true for females, with standards of beauty so high within popular culture that they are virtually unattainable. For example, the minority of women in America are overweight, yet the majority report that they feel as though they are overweight, illustrating that there is a disconnect between the standards of appearance women hold for themselves and the reality of the situation (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998). These unrealistic standards of beauty lead to shame, as the individuals who seek these standards are disappointed in their inability to achieve them.


Anxiety is additionally associated with self-objectification. The emphasis on bodily appearance in assessing self-worth over intrinsic qualities leads to anxiety, especially in women. There is a constant concern regarding how one appears and how others perceive this appearance. This worry contributes to anxiety, as it causes the individual to constantly monitor their appearance rather than focus on the task at hand (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).


Increased anxiety and shame can interfere in achieving peak motivational states. Csikszentmihalyi discusses his concept of flow theory as, “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). If one is self-conscious, according to Csikszentmihalyi, they are not capable of reaching this state of flow, as focus is not entirely directed toward the task at hand. With self-objectification, one is often concerned with their external appearance and others’ perceptions thereof, and as previously discussed, this disproportionately affects women. According to Fredrickson and Roberts (1997), “…by limiting women’s chances to initiate and maintain peak motivational states, the habitual body monitoring encouraged by a culture that objectifies the female body may reduce women’s quality of life.” By rendering an individual incapable of reaching peak states of flow, self-objectification degrades the individual’s ability to reach their fullest potential.


Self-objectification is the concept of seeing oneself as an object, rather than evaluating oneself based on intrinsic factors. The media plays a significant role in the process of objectification, and objectifying concepts can become internalized, causing an individual to self-objectify. There are many negative effects associated with self-objectification, including shame, anxiety, and an inability to reach a state of flow, all of which can diminish an individual’s quality of life. Understanding how these negative aspects of self-objectification affect an individual may lead one to question the effects of self-objectification on political efficacy.


Research on self-objectification and political efficacy has largely taken place independently, despite overlapping constructs relating to individual self-worth. It is possible that the objectification of women, which can lead to self-objectification, has negatively influenced political efficacy rates. Further exploration into the impact of the phenomenon of self-objectification on political efficacy, which indicates feelings of political adequacy, is necessary in understanding the justification for the gender gap in the political sphere.


Political efficacy is one’s belief that they have the ability to influence the political system in a democratic society (Forrest & Weseley, 2007). Political efficacy is important because it correlates with the likelihood of political participation and provides a method to measure the legitimacy of a governmental institution (Atkeson & Carrillo, 2007). If individuals, particularly women, experience higher rates of self-objectification, and feelings of inadequacy result from this phenomenon, it may explain why the number of women in statewide elected office has increased only slightly over the past two decades, as women may be less likely to run for office if they do not feel they possess adequate skills to do so or generally feel that their voice does not matter, due to heightened body surveillance and shame.


There are two types of political efficacy measures: internal and external. Internal political efficacy is one’s perceived ability to understand and participate in politics. External political efficacy is one’s perception of the responsiveness of a governmental institution to the demands of the individual (Niemi, Craig, & Mattei, 1991). Internal political efficacy corresponds more directly with feelings of political adequacy, while external political efficacy measures an individual’s perception of a government’s concern for them as an individual. Both measures help determine feelings of self-worth within the political realm.


Past research indicates that higher levels of political efficacy increase an individual’s likelihood of voting. Similarly, political apathy is correlated with low levels of political efficacy (Pinkleton, Austin, & Fortman, 1998). Measuring political efficacy, then, becomes important in determining the likelihood of political participation of an individual and is thus related to individual perceptions of political adequacy.


Political efficacy is also important in determining institutional validity. If citizens in a democracy have low political efficacy rates, one must question the governance in that system. Democracies are designed to be representative of the desires of the electorate, and if individuals do not feel that their voice matters within the electorate, the legitimacy of the democracy in question is at risk. Low political efficacy rates among an electorate may lead to governmental instability and a multitude of economic problems, including responding to only a subset of the electorate, which may not represent all interests of the citizenry (see, for example, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, 1995). Considering this, a measurement of political efficacy among members of a democratic society may be a valid method in determining a democratic government’s validity (Atkeson & Carrillo, 2007).


While the media plays a role in self-objectification, it also serves as an actor in determining individual political efficacy. Research shows that individuals who partake in information-rich media have higher levels of political efficacy than those who do not (Pinkleton, Austin, & Fortman, 1998). On the other hand, consumption of new media has been found to increase political cynicism levels, which, in turn, leads to lower political efficacy rates (Fu, Mou, Miller, & Jalette, 2011). In considering the increased prevalence of new media stemming from the rise of the internet in the 1990s, it is possible that there may be a correlation between reduced political efficacy rates and the increasing prevalence of self-objectification, stemming from the increasing sexualization and commodification of the human body as well as the increasing prevalence of images with unrealistic and unattainable portrayals of the human body, especially the female body. Because the phenomenon of self-objectification enhances personal perceptions of inadequacy, these feelings may affect other aspects of life, including an individual’s opinion of their qualifications to participate in politics, as well as their perception of their importance in the eyes of a governmental institution.


In understanding the significance of political efficacy and the negative consequences associated with the phenomenon of self-objectification, determining whether there is a relationship between the two could prove valuable. If the increasing prevalence of self-objectification is negatively affecting political efficacy rates, especially among women, it may be damaging to the reduction of the gender gap in politics, as feelings of inadequacy related to appearance could affect feelings of political adequacy as well.




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