Do certain people give you, for lack of a better term, the creeps? When you’re near them, do you have the feeling that they’re looking you over and possibly judging you? What is it that makes you feel so strange in their presence? If you’re lucky, you can move out of their sight and not have to deal with their unwanted gaze. However, you may have no choice if you’re stuck with them in a meeting or at someone’s house for a small social gathering. What makes things worse is that you don’t know exactly what it is that gives you this feeling of discomfort—but you definitely know it’s there.
In a new study on a specific form of interpersonal discomfort, Tel Aviv University’s Orly Bareket and colleagues (2018) examined the correlates of sexually objectifying stares as directed at women by men. Clearly, if you’re the target of such unwanted attention, you know just how miserable it makes you feel that certain parts of your body are being examined in excruciating detail. As noted by Bareket and her coauthors, “Sexual objectification is the perception of the human body merely as an object of sexual use” (p. 1). When the objectification takes the form of an ogle or leer, the target (generally a woman) can experience a range of deleterious outcomes such as impaired cognitive performance, feelings of bodily shame, and anxiety over her physique. If you’ve been through this experience, you know that the objectifying gaze can become a distraction from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. Instead of concentrating on the task at hand, you start to question whether there’s something ugly or defective about your appearance.
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There is research on people who engage in this objectifying gaze behavior and, as summarized by the authors, includes the fact that men who leer are also more likely to perpetrate sexual assaults. Even if they don’t go to this extreme, their tendency to look at a woman’s body rather than her face means that they are less able to communicate effectively because they miss out on the many nonverbal cues provided by the face. It’s possible, further, that by objectifying female targets, these men judge them as “less competent, warm, and moral, as well as less suitable for leadership” (p. 2). On the other hand, as the authors suggest, you might look at another person’s body if you’re in search of a romantic partner and are in a context where such gazes become less inappropriate. However, you wouldn’t make a judgment about who to become intimately involved with on the basis of that person’s body alone. You would also want to assess such attributes as personality and intelligence, which require that you look at the person’s face as well as the body.
Objectification theory suggests that the tendency to separate a gaze at a woman’s body from the gaze at her face results in her being seen entirely as a sexual object. “The male gaze creates the possibility for treating a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions as separated out from her person or as if they are capable of representing her” (p. 2). In other words, when a man’s gaze is directed at a woman’s body, he will treat her as someone who exists entirely for his use and pleasure. Previous research attempting to establish whether this is true, as Bareket et al. suggest, was limited by the fact that the findings depended on self-report, in which men indicated how much they stare at women in objectifying ways. Instead, it is necessary to use a measure of objectification that is not subject to the distortion of self-report, in which people tend to deny engaging in socially undesirable behavior.
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The obvious solution to the problem of self-report is to watch the actual gazes of experimental participants with eye tracking. The researcher can use this technology to measure exactly where men’s eyes wander when they look at female targets. The Israeli researchers took advantage of this technology while also asking their male participants to complete measures of objectifying attitudes. The 61 male participants, most of whom were college students, and all of whom were Jewish, ranged in age from about 20 years old to over 40. (The average age was 26 years old.) The experimenters placed them in an eye tracking apparatus while they viewed two sets of stimuli, all of which were photographs of women. In the first set, the women had an “ideal” Western body shape and were wearing white tank tops with jeans or gray sweatpants. They all had the same neutral body position and facial expression. In the second set of photographs, the women wore their own clothing, and all were smiling. The male participants thought they were in a study of impression formation, and the instructions indicated they should provide a quick positive or negative judgment of the women in the photo.
The questionnaire measure of sexual objectification of women asked participants to state their agreement with items such as “If a woman is attractive, she doesn’t need to have anything interesting to say,” “Women are usually flattered when you look at them,” “I would enjoy watching a female stripper,” and “Commenting on women’s physical features is only natural.”
The key variables of interest in the eye tracking part of the study were “dwell times” of eye movements directed at the face, chest, and pelvis of the women in the photographs. The researchers measured sexual objectification of the female in the photo by subtracting the time looking at the woman’s face from the time spent looking at her chest or hips. As the authors predicted, the men with higher dwell times on the sexual parts of the women’s bodies also had higher scores on the explicit measure of sexual objectification. The findings, Bareket et al. conclude, support the idea that “men who are likely to gaze at women’s bodies at the expense of their faces also endorse attitudes that justify and normalize the sexual objectification of women” (p. 8).
The Israeli study’s findings suggest, then, why certain people make you feel uncomfortable. The subtle form of sexism represented by a man’s stare is difficult to pin down. You might know that something is off but not know exactly what it is, and you’ll be even less likely to resist that unwanted gaze. Although this study examined sexist attitudes, the authors also point out that such implicitly held attitudes about a group of people can be involved in other forms of prejudice and discrimination. Perhaps you feel that a person of a different color skin, ethnicity, or nationality is looking at and judging you, but you have no concrete proof that there is any negative intent of attitude being directed your way. If you’re an older person, you may feel that young people also look at you in a critical or judgmental way, but unless they say something, you can’t be quite sure.
To sum up, the reason that some people make you feel uncomfortable may have far less to do with you than with them. If you can move on, either physically or mentally, you’ll be able to avoid having that unwanted gaze thwart your own potential for fulfillment.