Nita Mary McKinley, Ph.D.

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Allegheny Psychology Department Allegheny College  
Women & Objectified Body Consciousness

My area of specialization is gender and gender role development across the lifespan. I have been particularly interested in women's body experience within U.S. culture. For my dissertation research, I developed a new measure to study what I call "objectified body consciousness." This scale is based on the work of feminist theorists who have argued that U.S. women are taught to view their bodies as objects to be watched as an outside observer. My OBC measure consists of three subscales: 

  • Body Surveillance. This scale measures how much a woman thinks of her body in terms of how it looks, rather than how it feels.
  • Body Shame. This scale measures whether a woman, rather than simply feeling bad, believes she is a bad person when she does not achieve cultural body standards. I take this to be a measure of how much a woman has internalized cultural body standards and made them her own. 
  • Appearance Control Beliefs. This scale measures whether a woman believes she can control her appearance, given enough effort, or whether she believes her appearance is controlled by other factors such as genetics. 
Body surveillance and body shame are related to lower body esteem and measures of psychological well-being, as well as to increased problem eating. Control beliefs are related to higher body esteem and psychological well-being, but also to increased problem eating. This demonstrates the double-bind women may face in terms of their body experience. Feeling like you can control your appearance may make you feel better, but it may also encourage unhealthy behaviors. (I should note, however, that these results are based on correlations, which means we cannot tell whether having higher control beliefs makes you feel better about your body, or whether feeling better about your body makes you feel like you are in control of your appearance.) 

Age and Gender Differences

By surveying a sample of undergraduate women and their middle-aged mothers, I have demonstrated that young women have higher levels of surveillance and body shame than their mothers.  However, even though mothers weigh more and presumably are less likely to conform to cultural standards of attractiveness than their daughters, they do not like their bodies less, nor do they diet more.  In another study, I have also demonstrated that gender differences in body esteem can be accounted for by differences in objectified body consciousness. 

Encouraging Body Dissatisfaction in Women

When undergraduate women and men rate a woman who is high or low on objectified body consciousness, they rate her as more lazy and less self-disciplined if she does not worry about her appearance and they do not like her as much if she says she believes appearance is controlled genetically rather than by hard work. Thus, other people's attitudes may encourage us to objectify our bodies. 

Future Directions 

Right now, I am working on a paper with a student to examine issues such as the relationships of OBC to feminism and to other kinds of activism. Here are some other projects I am plannning to do: 

  • conduct a 10-year follow up to my original mothers' and daughters' data. 
  • study resistance to cultural appearance norms and the effect of resistance on objectified body consciousness, body image, and psychological well-being 
  • expand my research to include the relationship of objectification to other psychological issues, such as prejudice and stigmatization of non-conformists. 

Here are some feminist writers who have influenced my work: 

Sandra Bartky (1988). "Foucault, femininity, and the modernization of patriarchal power" in Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance (pp. 61-86) edited by I. Diamond, and L. Quinby. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 

Carol Spitzack (1990). Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 

Naomi Wolf (1991). The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: Anchor Press. 

Papers & Presentations

Update 01/11/2002. Comments? Nita McKinley