MS in Public Health (M.S.P.H.)
Degree Granting Department
Community and Family Health
Oliver Tom Massey, Ph.D.
Bruce Lubotsky Levin, Dr.P.H., M.P.H.
Ellen M. Daley, Ph.D.
appearance comparison, body shame, body surveillance, self-objectification
Background: Objectification theory considers how gender and culture intersect to position women at a greater risk of developing eating disorders, depression, and sexual dysfunction. Self-objectification is defined as the internalization of a third person perspective to view one’s own body, which then leads to mental health consequences of anxiety, body shame, insensitivity to internal drives, and decreased peak motivational states. Body surveillance, the habitual and constant monitoring of the body, denotes the behavioral manifestation of self-objectification. Altogether, the accumulation of objectifying experiences and mental health consequences heighten women’s risks of developing the aforementioned mental disorders.
Rationale: Extant experimental and correlational research supports objectification theory, in particular regarding eating disorders and depression. Research into the effects of social media on mental health is a relatively new frontier, thus gaps exist in the current body of literature. This study endeavored to contribute to the existing research base by employing qualitative methods to impart women’s personal descriptions of the experience of self-objectification and its proposed consequences in relation to social media use.
Purpose of the Study: The purpose of the study was to explore how women’s social media consumption contributes to self-objectification, body surveillance, appearance comparison, body shame, and appearance-based self-worth. Also, the study sought to understand if women perceived themselves differently when they were not using social media platforms.
Methods: Fifteen women completed the Social Media Use and Activities Questionnaire and the in-depth, semi-structured interview. The questionnaire assessed women’s active social media accounts, frequency of social media use, and social media behaviors. The interview protocol contained questions designed to extract explanations of constructs from objectification theory such as self-objectification, body surveillance, and body shame. A multilevel thematic data analysis was performed.
Results: All of the individuals interviewed were heavy social media users based on the frequency of use (66.7% visit platforms several times daily), as well as the number of accounts operated (minimum of 4). Indicative of self-objectification and body surveillance, women emphasized the importance of how their physical appearance and body attributes are portrayed on social media sites. Also consistent with the definition of self-objectification, women expressed concerns about perceptions, reactions, and disapproval from others on social media regarding their physical appearance. Three additional modalities of body surveillance surfaced including: (1) using filters to enhance or modify the appearance of skin in pictures; (2) posing to accentuate facial features, hairstyles, and body attributes; and (3) women’s personal criteria regarding uploading and “tagging” of appearance-based pictures shared on social media.
Findings strongly suggest women compare their physical appearances, features, and bodies to other women. Beauty ideals are determined by evaluating the number of individuals associated with other women’s social media accounts, as well as the distribution of ‘likes’ and positive comments written by people on their appearance-focused content. Five women recollected comparing their appearances and bodies to others, engaging in body surveillance, and feeling as if their own body and appearance failed to comply with beauty ideals, which then led to the experience of feeling body shame.
Low self-esteem, depression, disordered eating, compulsive exercise, or bulimia nervosa were cited as reasons for deletion, temporary deactivation, or taking breaks from social media. Refraining from using social media was associated with feeling less pressured, engaging in less comparisons overall, being more mindful of the present moment, and relaxing standards for personal appearances.
Conclusions: This study generated contextually rich, in-depth descriptions which illustrated women’s experiences with self-objectification, body surveillance, appearance comparisons, body shame, and appearance-based self-worth in the virtual world of social media. Based on results from this study, objectification theory is clearly applicable to women’s social media use and there is definitive need for future research to address the effects of social media consumption on mental health, particularly among younger generations.
Meanwhile, primary prevention initiatives should educate people about the process of self-objectification and its associated consequences, as well as teach resistance strategies. Learning how to deconstruct media content, critically analyze others' online portrayals, and build self-esteem and self-worth may impede self-objectification and its negative mental health effects. Furthermore, public health campaigns should build upon the momentum of the body positivity movement. Known to young women as “BoPo,” this movement encourages women to see themselves as more than their bodies, inspires self-acceptance, and empowers them to be unapologetic and celebrate their body in its current form without adhering to societal beauty norms. These messages are instrumental to dismantling beauty ideals, exhibiting inclusivity of all body types, and mitigating the effects of sexual objectification of the female body.
Scholar Commons Citation
Roca, Gina-Maria, "Through the Lens of Objectification Theory: Social Media Use and Women's Behavioral Health" (2018). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.