Study: Women Who See Themselves as Objects Are Less Able to Count Their Own Heartbeats

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Being out of touch with one's body may be part of understanding self-objectifying behavior.

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andrewmalone/Flickr

When we talk about women internalizing cultural messages of objectification, so that they begin to think of themselves as objects, we imply that they disconnect, in some way, from their bodies. The idea is that a woman begins to see her body in terms not of physical utility or well-being, but of physical attractiveness -- and in so doing may develop an eating disorder, mild depression, or sexual dysfunction. 

It's easy to blame a culture that sexualizes and objectifies women for many women's subsequent tendency to turn around and objectify themselves. When "objectification theory" was first proposed in 1996, the psychologists who coined it claimed that it would help us to understand the "experiential consequence of being female in a culture that sexually objectifies that female body." But it didn't explain why external pressures are enough to drive some women stop eating while others seemed unaffected.

The original authors of objectification theory also proposed that women who self-objectified were less "in tune" with the rhythms and signals of their bodies. This connection between the psychological to the physiological has never been tested, though.

So researchers in the U.K. did just that, looking at women's ability to be interospective -- a quality similar to introspection, but referring to looking inward at their literal hearts (along with the rest of their body signals).

While a device connected to their finger measured their pulse, female university students were asked to "listen" to their bodies and silently count their own heartbeats, without feeling for their pulse. At the best, they were able to do so with 85 percent accuracy. 

Then, the women responded to questionnaires designed to measure the degree to which they self-objectify -- ranking how highly they value physical attributes based on appearance compared to those based on competence (for example, were they more concerned about their body shape or their energy level?).

They found a significant correlation between the participants' ability to count their heartbeats and where they scored on the scale of self-objectification: Those who valued appearance over competence were less interospective.

But on further analysis of the data they collected, the authors didn't conclude that their focus on what others are thinking about them is what was keeping their subjects from being aware of their own bodies. On the contrary, they suggest that a reduced ability to be "in touch" with their bodies may be why some women are more susceptible to self-objectification in the first place. 

They also have reason to believe this detachment may lead such un-interospective women to experience emotion less intensely.

It's a bit disturbing to think that some of us can so easily see our bodies as objects because we don't feel them the way others are better able to. New-agey as it may sound, it suggests that maybe the key to helping women with eating disorders, or who are otherwise suffering from self-objectifying attitudes, is to help tune them back in.

A few small studies have shown than just looking at oneself in the mirror can, by restoring self-focus, help improve one's ability to count heartbeats. The idea that this could actually help counter the effects of objectification is still mostly theoretical, but it's a powerful possibility.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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