Depicting Women as Sex Objects in Television Advertising: Effects on Body Dissatisfaction

Desiree Tygart



            Recent study in social cognition has focused on what specific environmental conditions would help promote the forming of gender stereotypes in regards to social perception and behavior.  Television advertisements are highly suggestible, persuasive elements of everyday life that do help form and strengthen gender stereotypes.  Analysis of television advertisements has shown that many ads contain gender-stereotypic ideas and pictures.  Americans cannot escape being affected by these ads, as more than ninety percent of all American families own televisions, and the average person views over seven hundred advertisements each week alone.

Social scientists are suggesting that although television ads are generally made to promote specific items, they may have a lasting effect on several things, such as people’s beliefs, values, attitudes and even their behavior.  In 1980, researchers from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization suggested that repeated exposure to sexist ads is a contributing cause to havoc in society and many social problems, including such behavior as violence against women and sexual harassment to eating disorders.  Although not many experimental studies have been done about the results of gender stereotypic television ads, research does suggest that these ads can temporarily influence the viewers’ self-concepts.  Jennings, Geis, & Brown in a 1980 study found that women who viewed ads showing reversed gender roles were more self-confident than women who viewed ads with typical gender roles.  In addition, Atkin & Miller in 1975 showed that children who viewed ads depicting reversed gender roles rated male oriented jobs as more appropriate for women, as opposed to those children who viewed ads with women in a traditional homemaker role.  Later studies have shown that ads portraying women as homemakers may activate the belief that women are domestic and nurturing, whereas ads that show half-naked women, may activate the belief that women are alluring, frivolous sexual objects.

Western culture has changed its image of feminine beauty over time. Whereas once pleasantly plump was considered beautiful, currently a slender physique is what is considered ideal.  With the increasingly thinner ideal, women’s dissatisfaction with their body image and eating disorders in women has increased considerably.  This lead the authors to wonder about several things, such as; Would viewing ads depicting females as sex objects exacerbate these same body image perceptions among women? Would these female sex object ads influence body perceptions of men, since it might get them thinking about the stereotypical ideal of a large, muscular male body? Since research suggests that women who have feminist beliefs are less influenced by these sexist ads than traditional women, would the viewers’ perception of their body image be moderated if they leaned toward feminist beliefs? 

In this study, Howard Lavine, Donna Sweeney and Stephen H. Wagner examined whether male and female participants had an increase in the dissatisfaction of their own body images, after viewing advertisements that depicted women as sexual objects.  Their hypothesis was that when women were exposed to sexist advertisements three things would happen.  First, these women would judge their current body size as larger.  Second, there would be a larger difference between their actual and ideal body sizes (wishing they were thinner).  Third, they would show a bigger difference in their own ideal body size and their perceptions of other women’s body size preference than the women who viewed either the non-sexist advertisements, or the viewers in the no ad control condition.  They also predicted that feminists would show more negative attitudes about the sexist ads than the non-feminists would, and the feminists were more negative about the sexist ads than they were about the non-sexist ads.

To test their theory, both males and females were exposed to three separate situations. The first group viewed 15 sexist ads and 5 non-sexist ads (sexist ad condition), the second group viewed 20 non-sexist ads (non-sexist ad condition), and the third group completed a body image and attitude scale but were not shown any ads (“no ad control” situation).  The first two groups were told that they were participating in a marketing research project and the purpose of the study was to determine the pleasantness of the ads.  Each ad was then rated for its pleasantness.  Finally, groups 1 and 2 were asked to fill out a seemingly unrelated questionnaire about attitudes and beliefs.  During the debriefing, not one of the participants expressed either suspicion about the purpose of the study, nor whether the two sections of the study were related.  The third group’s data measured the different degrees in which feminists of both genders were affected in both attitudes and body image dissatisfaction.

The results of the study showed:

(Attitudes toward sexist vs. nonsexist ads) feminists held significantly higher negative attitudes about the sexist ads than the non-sexist ads.  The feminists also had more negative attitudes about those sexist ads than the non-feminist participants.

(Effects of exposure to sexist ads on body image) results were the same across the board for the nonsexist and no ad control situations on the body image as a function of ad type, gender, and favorable or opposed attitudes toward feminism.  Basically, women rated themselves as fatter than ideal and men rated themselves as too thin for the ideal after watching sexist ads.  Men and women’s ratings showed a marked difference in the sexist condition, but did not differ in the nonsexist condition.  The analysis on body image and actual/ideal body size difference was not changed by attitudes toward feminism.

            Our television ads have changed their roles of women as homemakers into sex objects over time.  The purpose of the study was to see the if there was a significant influence over men and women’s self-perception and their satisfaction of body image after being exposed to sexist television advertising.  The study showed that sexist ads did have an influence on both women and men alike.  While women tended to rate themselves fatter after watching such ads, men rated themselves opposite and thought they were too thin and not muscular enough.  Although the effects of this study temporarily affected the participants, repeated exposure to such ads may have longer or even lifelong effects.  The researchers also found two additional results that were unexpected.  First, while feminists held more negative attitudes about the sexist ads, their negative body image was affected the same as the non-feminist subjects, so being feminist had no influence on whether the ad affected their ratings.  Second, being shown sexist ads decreased both men and women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies.  The authors suggest that future research should be more focused on examining the conditions and the manner in which group attitudes change the effects of being exposed to stereotypic information.  The authors state that since distorted body image and body dissatisfaction have been specifically correlated with such harmful things as dieting, depression, and low self-esteem their study about the effects of sexist television ads has definite social implications for both men and women's psychological adjustment and well-being.

            This study was very surprising in some respects.  I had never thought about sexist television advertisements affecting anyone but women.  I thought that women were mainly the ones that obsess about their body image and also how they perceive others view their body.  Men apparently see themselves as not large enough, without enough muscles, while not surprisingly women view themselves as too fat to live up to the societal norm in America. 

            I thought that the authors isolating the elements of feminist beliefs in both men and women and determining what impact this had on their body images and sexist feelings quite interesting also.  While it seems fairly common sense to realize that people with feminist beliefs state they are impacted in a more negative way than traditional valued people, it seems odd that they still let the ads negatively affect their perception of their bodies.

            American society today places too much emphasis on what a perfect body should look like.  We seem to say to our children, "it doesn't matter what a person looks like on the outside, it's what's on the inside that counts", or "don't judge a book by its' cover".  I think everyone has heard these idealistic but unrealistic anecdotes many times before, but as we see every day in television ads, magazines, billboards and radio commentary, these are just nice little sayings that we as American adults ignore daily.  Why do we do this?  It's hard to say.  Not all cultures idolize extremely thin women, and years ago, neither did Americans.  As the research stated, years ago what was considered a beautiful womanly figure was much heavier with more rounded curves than the anorexic look of today.  Today in America, a woman that wears a size 3 or 5 dress seems to have the ideal figure, but do most people realize that the most famous sex symbol of all time, Marilyn Monroe wore a size 14?

            While this study did show that not only women were affected by the sexist ads, but also men, I still hold the firm belief that we as women struggle with a negative body image much more so than men.  I have been on and off diets since I was 11 years old.  I have a very negative body image, so I am in the mainstream thinking of today.  Ads on t.v. definitely play a part in this negative body image, but also the comments I hear in every day life. Ask almost any male what they want in a woman, and most of the time, they will say, "well, she has to have a nice body".  I think anyone would be hard pressed to hear a common concern for women being that men just aren't large enough, or have enough muscles to suit their taste in physical attractiveness.  Of course, this is a generalization, but I think it's an accurate one.  I still have hope that someday I will find someone who is as interested in my personality, values, morals and beliefs as I am in theirs, and not just pass me by because I'm overweight.  Maybe someday, I will have a positive body image and could think of myself as being attractive or beautiful. (Or I'll just move to Germany, where the men prefer their women to be heavier)!