Welcome to Pocket Science: a glimpse at recent research from Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What,” “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.
Sexual objectification — behaviors that diminish a person’s humanity and individuality by reducing them to a sexual object — can inflict serious harm on those subjected to it. Whether in the form of words or looks, whether framed as critical or complimentary, objectification can lead its targets, usually women, to begin regarding themselves in a similar way. When it does, those targets may start focusing on their appearance at the expense of their other qualities, sometimes experiencing body shame that can then contribute to depression, eating disorders, even the objectification of others.
To date, most research on objectification has been done in the context of strangers. Nebraska’s Frannie Calkins, Becca Brock, Sarah Gervais and colleagues wanted to investigate the overlooked inverse: objectification in the context of intimate relationships. So the team turned to attachment theory, which proposes that a person’s history with caregivers can set the stage for their tendency to accept or reject interpersonal connection and their perceptions of close relationships in general. The researchers specifically wondered whether styles of insecure attachment — especially the anxiety associated with a fear of abandonment and the avoidance that can stem from distrust or fear of intimacy — might correspond with objectifying oneself, objectifying others, or being objectified.
Their search for answers took two forms: a questionnaire completed by 813 undergraduate students, and questionnaire-plus-observation of 159 couples who were navigating pregnancy. The questionnaires asked participants about their experiences with objectification and assessed their attachment styles. The 20-minute observations of each pregnant couple, meanwhile, assessed the attachment to a partner — or a couple’s secure base — during a difficult conversation in which each partner sought and provided support.
Overall, the team did find links between insecure attachment and objectification. Results from the undergrad questionnaire suggested that greater attachment anxiety corresponds with more body surveillance, or habitually fretting over one’s appearance, along with shame about one’s body — both manifestations of self-objectification. That same correlation between attachment anxiety and body surveillance emerged from the survey of pregnant women in a committed relationship. Conversely, the more secure a couple’s base, the less objectification both women and men reported feeling from their partners, and the more they reported feeling valued for their non-physical attributes.
Determining if attachment insecurity leads to objectification; if objectification instead drives insecure attachment; or if they feed one another, will require studying a cohort of participants over a substantial span of time, the team said. But if future studies can replicate and expound on the team’s findings, they could help inform screening and potentially improve therapy for both individuals and couples.