by Christin Bowman

It was on a hot summer day a few weeks ago that I decided to sit outside in a park to do some writing. Ninety-degree heat isn’t for the faint of heart, and the only sane thing to wear on a day like that is shorts and a tank top. What can I say? I like it hot. I set myself up under a sprawling oak tree, and started typing away on my laptop.

I hadn’t been working for more than 15 minutes, when I noticed a group of guys staring at me. I pretended not to notice them whispering to one another and looking in my direction. Maybe they’re looking at someone else, I thought. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were looking at and talking about me. I tried to ignore them. Without thinking, I checked that my belly was sucked in and my shorts were pulled up in the back. I looked at my laptop and willed myself to work – but I couldn’t. Why did I wear this? I scolded myself. Why can’t I think straight anymore?

As it turns out, this brain-lock phenomenon I was experiencing is something researchers have been wondering about for a while. Many researchers believe that when women start thinking about their bodies as objects (i.e. when they self-objectify) the brain energy they are using to do this takes away valuable brain energy to do other things. In other words, if those whispering guys made me self-objectify my body, the brain space I used thinking about my body (and trying to see my body the way those outsiders were seeing my body) took away some of the brain space I was trying to put into my writing – and it made it harder for me to use my brain for the task I wanted to focus on.

But does this theory really hold up? Researchers Diane Quinn, Rachel Kallen, Jean Twenge, and Barbara Fredrickson[1] decided to find out. They asked young women to step into a dressing room with a full-length mirror, try on a piece of clothing, and then take a little test. Half of these women tried on a sweater, and the other half tried on a one-piece swimsuit.

Then, while still in the dressing room, all alone, the women took a Stroop test.  If you’ve never heard of the Stroop test, you are in for some fun! Psychologists have been using this task for a long time to measure people’s attention and focus. Here’s how it works: People are shown a bunch of color words (e.g. blue, red, green), and each of those words is printed in a color that is different from the word (see the picture here for an example). One at a time, a word flashes on a screen, and the person has to see how quickly they can name the color the word is printed in (not the color that is spelled out). Try it yourself with the picture here – the first answer would be “green” because the word “yellow” is printed in green. It’s kinda hard, right?!

So, where were we? Oh right – the women were sitting in dressing rooms, wearing either sweaters or swimsuits, and taking a Stroop test. While they took the test, a computer measured how quickly the women were able to name the correct colors. Once all of the women had finished, the researchers compared the reaction times of the women who had worn swimsuits to those who had worn sweaters.

And I bet you can guess the results! The women who were asked to try on swimsuits performed the Stroop test more slowly. It took the women in swimsuits longer to name each color correctly than it took the women in sweaters. Even though they were alone in the dressing room!

What can we make of this? The researchers think that when the women put on the swimsuits and looked at themselves in the mirror, they immediately started to self-objectify (I mean, seriously – how could you not?). Being in this state of self-objectification caused the women to spend some of their precious mental energy on thinking about their bodies instead of thinking about the Stroop test. And that’s why they performed more poorly on the test.

No wonder I couldn’t think once those guys started leering at me. As soon as my attention was focused on my body, my brain was missing some of the energy it needed to work right.

But I think the problem is deeper than that. As soon as I noticed those men looking my body, the first thing I wanted to do was hide. I immediately tried to “fix” my body and asked myself why I had chosen to wear shorts and a tank top in ninety-degree heat. Wait a minute! Why shouldn’t I wear those clothes if I want to??

The answer is: I should wear whatever makes me feel awesome. Society, though – society could use a makeover.

Women think about their bodies – and self-objectify – because we live in a society that constantly objectifies us to begin with. We are trying to beat society to the punch. “If I evaluate my body before the world does, nobody can hurt me,” we think to ourselves. Thinking about it this way, it’s pretty obvious that the problem lies with society, and not with individual women. It wasn’t my fault those men ogled me. It wasn’t the clothes I was wearing. It wasn’t the way I was sitting or the sweat rolling down my neck. It was our patriarchal society oozing from the eyes and mouths of those creepers. And until we can dismantle this sexist culture, women will continue to blame ourselves for feeling paralyzed and brain-locked as soon as our bodies are noticed.

[1] Quinn, D. M., Kallen, R. W., Twenge, J. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2006). The disruptive effect of self-objectification on performance. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 59-64.