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The objectification of women within Western culture teaches women that the mature female body is a thing that belongs to and is evaluated by others. Women also encounter messages and images in which a thin female body is associated with success and power (Tolman & Debold, 1994), communicating to women that their body is an important commodity and can influence life experiences. Indeed, research suggests that in addition to appearance-based criticism, overweight women experience various forms of discrimination (Crandall, 1994; Rothblum, 1992). Girls' understanding of the importance of appearance for women in a patriarchal culture may contribute to feelings of fear, shame, and disgust that some experience during the transition from girlhood to womanhood because they sense that they are becoming more visible to society as sexual objects (Lee, 1994). Nolen-Hoeksema and Girgus (1994) proposed that the belief that one's body belongs to others is a diathesis for mental health risks of depression and eating disorders because young women believe that conforming to the expectations of “attractiveness as thinness” is a way to gain respect and become successful. Women are at a disproportional risk for a variety of mental health problems (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), which may, in part, be related to women's struggle and inability to achieve a narrow beauty ideal (Crawford & Unger, 2000).
In addition to perpetuating a thin-ideal standard for women, the sexual objectification of women occurs in a variety of contexts and forms such as sexual gazing, commentary, and evaluation; sexual harassment; and sexual violence. These forms of sexual objectification can also contribute to women's experiences of mental health problems (Crawford & Unger, 2000; Harned, 2000). Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) have proposed a theory of objectification that provides a framework for understanding the psychological experiences of women that can potentially result from pervasive objectification. According to Fredrickson and Roberts (1997), objectification occurs when a woman's body is separated from her person and is regarded as representing her. Objectification of women is prominent in our society, occurring in a variety of contexts, thus it is assumed that most women encounter objectification and are affected by it to some degree. The theory proposes that societal objectification of women teaches women to adopt and internalize an outsider view, treating themselves “as an object to be looked at and evaluated” (p. 177). This can lead to continual self-monitoring which raises self-consciousness and contributes to feelings of shame and anxiety, diminished awareness of internal states, and detracts from “peak motivational states” (p. 194; see Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997 for a comprehensive explanation).
Tentative evidence exists to support some of the postulates of objectification theory. Research has demonstrated that self-objectification contributes to low body esteem (McKinley, 1998) and to body shame (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998). In an experimental study, Fredrickson et al. (1998) experimentally induced self-objectification, surveyed participants' degree of body shame, and measured the amount of food the participants left following an eating task. Participants who scored high on measures of self-objectification reported the greatest amount of body shame and this predicted restrained eating. The induced state of self-objectification did not independently predict restrained eating in this study, suggesting that shame may mediate the relationship between self-objectification and restrained eating in this sample. In a related study, Noll and Fredrickson (1998) found evidence that shame does mediate the relationship between self-objectification and disordered eating. Lastly, Tiggemann and Slater (2001) tested a path model examining the relationship between self-objectification and disordered eating among dancers and nondancers. These authors found significant correlations between two separate measures of self-objectification, shame, and disordered eating. This recent research begins to provide a foundation of support for the objectification theory's postulate that self-objectification induces body shame and influences disordered eating practices.
Although a link has been established between self-objectification and disordered eating symptoms, the effect of other mediating variables still needs to be explored. One consequence of self-objectification postulated by Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) was a reduction of internal awareness. Individuals are often able to express and identify emotions as well as recognize physiological states associated with such experiences. If self-objectification contributes to an inability to recognize such internal states, an individual may have a greater vulnerability for developing mental health problems (Lesser, 1985). In a recent study, Tiggemann and Slater (2001) used the Body Consciousness Questionnaire (BCQ; Miller, Murphy, & Buss, 1981) as a measure of internal awareness and tested its mediational relationship between self-objectification and disordered eating. The mediational relationship was not significant, nor were the correlations between the measure of internal awareness, disordered eating, and self-objectification. Although these results do not support objectification theory's postulate, it is too early to disregard the idea that self-objectification contributes to a lack of internal awareness. In addition, the BCQ used in the previous study is not the best measure of internal awareness currently available. Measures of alexithymia, an inability to identify or express emotions, more closely assess internal awareness and are more widely used.
Individuals with eating disorders often suffer from alexithymia (Cochrane, Brewerton, Wilson, & Hodges, 1993; Smith, Amner, Johnsson, & Franck, 1997) and alexithymia has been found to be an independent factor contributing to the development of various mental health disorders, including disordered eating (Vingerhoets, Van Heck, Grim, & Bermond, 1995). Since it is important to continue to test the potential mediating effects of internal awareness as a variable within objectification theory, this study improved upon past research by utilizing measures of alexithymia as its definition of internal awareness. Thus, alexithymia was tested as a potential mediator in the relationship between self-objectification and disordered eating.
Depression and Self-Objectification
Because this notion has not been tested, we included this mediational factor in our model. In addition to research supporting the link between self-objectification and depression is the extensive overlap between eating disorders and depressive disorders. The high rates of co-morbidity found between eating disorders and depression may, in part, be caused by the common features of negative self-evaluation and general dissatisfaction with one's physical appearance (Koenig & Wasserman, 1995). Due to the relationship between eating disorders and depression, researchers often include depressive symptoms as a risk factor within their models. Studies have consistently found that depression is a significant risk factor in the development of disordered eating (Pook, Conti, & Lester, 1996; Stice, 2001; Stice, Killen, Hayward, & Taylor, 1998).
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