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‘People felt the girl in the bikini was more responsible for being bullied’

Elise Holland investigated the sexual objectification of pre-pubescent girls in the media.

Interview by Kate Aubrey
 

‘I was noticing a lot in the media and news about the increasing sexualisation of children. This got me thinking, if women are most targeted for objectification when they are at their peak fertility, then what does it mean when we have young girls that are being sexualized? How does that influence the way they are perceived and treated? 

This gap in knowledge got me interested in how the process of objectification might operate for young girls. I broke down objectification into two parts. If you objectify someone you see them as an object. This is measured by how people visually focus on the face versus body. I also measured how we associate people as objects. 

‘…if you objectify someone, you see them less as a human. Consequently, you deny them of their mental states and then you can consider them less worthy of moral consideration or treatment.’ 

The second aspect looks at how, if you objectify someone, you see them less as a human. Consequently, you deny them of their mental states and then you can consider them less worthy of moral consideration or treatment. 

My PHD consisted of three studies involving 300 Psychology students for two years. In my first study I wanted to test those two different aspects of objectification on woman only.  

I found that people paid more attention to the bodies of the woman when she was dressed in lingerie and also denied her moral value and the ability for independent thought. 

In the second study I compared adults to children and varied three things – the facial prominence (full face versus face and body), the age and the clothing. Then I looked at how these factors impacted the attribution of moral worth, the attribution of mind (personhood) and also attention focused on the face versus body. 

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The results found a girl in a bikini was seen as less capable of independent thought and less worthy of moral consideration, demonstrating the same outcomes as an adult woman. 

These initial findings took me by surprise, particularly because, when you look at a child that is wearing a bikini for instance, I think, how much is that her choice? 

Or her mum’s, or peer pressure, or so many factors may have influenced that. I think across all studies that shocked me the most. 

The third study I wanted to see if there were any outcomes of these real–world perceptions. Participants were given two stories about a girl in a bullying scenario.

In the first instance the girl was cyber-bullied and the second she had been pushed over in the playground. 

I was interested in how people reacted to the girl, depending on what she was wearing. I found that people felt the girl in the bikini was more responsible for being bullied. Because they cared less for her, they didn’t feel as bad that she had been harmed and whether or not she had been helped.

Interestingly, people in the study did not see her as suffering any less than the girl in regular clothes. They all thought she was hurt exactly the same amount. However, they just didn’t care. I think that was really quite interesting. 

If you don’t view someone as worthy of moral consideration, I would have thought you would see them as less responsible as well. So that kind of surprised me. In none of my studies have I found any participant-gender effects, so men and women perceive women and children in exactly the same way when they’re depicted in revealing attire. 

‘Before you make a comment about a woman, ask is this something you would say about a man? If you question yourself, don’t say it.’ 

Research demonstrates that a woman’s experiences of being objectified lead her to internalize the observer’s perspective of themselves, they “self-objectify”. 

This self-objectification has a host of negative outcomes, including increased body shame, eating disorders, depression, sexual dysfunction, reduced performance, both cognitive and physical. 

For example, one previous study had shown that high levels of self–objectification predicted poorer performance of throwing a ball. I definitely think the findings suggest there probably should be some intervention on the marketing of objectified clothing to young girls. 

In terms of media there is so much emphasis on what woman are wearing or how they look, even for our politicians like Julia Gillard. However, for men, it’s more about what they have done and what they have accomplished. 

Before you make a comment about a woman, ask is this something you would say about a man? If you question yourself, don’t say it. 

It’s certainly time to focus on a woman’s accomplishments and competence, rather than just what they are wearing. Knowledge is the first step towards making any sort of change. So, starting a debate and informing the public is always the first step.’

Elise Holland’s thesis is titled: “From Somebodies to Bodies: Towards a better understanding of the causes, process and consequences of sexual objectification.”

My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.

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