Be aware of the objectification of bodies

Objectification involves viewing and/or treating a person as an object devoid of thought or feeling. This is most commonly seen in the sexualisation and commodification of feminine bodies and the proliferation of ideal body standards represented in media. For a summary of the terms used when discussing objectification, see the Objectification Definitions Summary 

Objectification theory 

Objectification theory is a framework for understanding the experience of being female in a culture that sexually objectifies the female body. The theory proposes that girls and women, more so than boys and men, are socialised to internalise an observer's perspective as their primary view of their physical selves. 

Sports and the objectification of female bodies 

There is some support for the relationship between self-objectification and competitive level in sports. Muscat and Long (2008) determined that athletes who competed in more competitive sports (e.g., engaging in structured sports at international, national, or regional levels) received more critical comments about their appearance than athletes who participated in recreational sports. 

Objectification can also be expressed through body shaming. It is not uncommon in sports for athletes and coaches to believe there are certain ideal body types for success in sport, and when an athlete perceives themselves as not meeting that standard, they may feel shame as a result.  Women matching athletes in various sports have reported receiving critical comments about their appearance from family, friends, coaches, and trainers. Comments targeted the athletes’ appearance, weight, and the discrepancy between their bodies and the ideal for their particular sport.  Athletes who experienced these critical comments reported feeling more body shame and anxiety than athletes who did not (Muscat & Long,  2008). 

Sport as an emancipatory tool 

Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) suggest that participation in sport may be one way for women matching and non-binary athletes to resist the internalisation of an objectifying perspective by focusing on what a body can do rather than how it looks. Accordingly, one would expect sports participation to be associated with lower levels of self-objectification and its consequences. However, self-objectification is likely to be enhanced in situations that accentuate an individual’s awareness of observers’ perspectives of their body. Therefore, sports that emphasise or focus on appearance are likely to enhance self-objectification and, thus, its consequences. 

With all of the problems associated with self-objectification, Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) offered some suggestions to reduce self-objectification. One suggestion is that women-matching athletes should be involved in sports, particularly at young ages, to promote awareness of what their bodies can do instead of how they look. 

Source: Ede, Alison. Self-Objectification and Sport Participation: Do the Gendered Makeup and Competitive Level of the Team Matter?, thesis, May 2010; Denton, Texas.

Objectification of men 

Male body image issues don’t occur in a vacuum. Men's mental health conditions and low self-esteem are often at the root of these unhealthy behaviours and co-occurring disorders. A meta-analysis of 23 studies involving young males at Western universities found that male body image issues are significantly associated with anxiety and depression. 

When a person becomes fixated on their physical appearance and body dysphoria, it significantly negatively affects their mental health. In media and popular culture, the ideals of masculinity are very closely tied with the ideals of the masculine figure (tall, muscular, broad). This representation reinforces the idea that if you don't meet these criteria, it actively undermines that person's masculinity and masculine identity. In  addition, teen boys who experience bullying due to their appearance may continue to suffer from body dissatisfaction and related issues as they mature into young adults. Male body image issues can result from trauma connected with bullying, sexual trauma, childhood trauma, or other.

Once we as a society can understand that men are more than their physical appearance, we can begin to change the culture of ideal bodies  toward more productive ends of health, body acceptance, and celebration of all body types. For men, unhealthy body expectations are far-reaching, affecting how boys grow up viewing themselves, leading to the development of eating disorders or muscle dysmorphia, and ultimately making for an unhappy, unsatisfied lifestyle.  

Consequences of objectification in athletes 

  • Body change behaviours in athletes 
  • Compulsive exercise behaviours in athletes 
  • Restrictive dieting behaviours in athletes 
  • Body image disturbance in athletes 
  • Body dissatisfaction 
  • Negative self-talk and lack of confidence 
  • Negative mental health effects 

Ways to tackle objectification 

Individual level 

A negative body image may have developed throughout your life, so changing it can take time and effort. Suggestions for improving your body  image include: 

  • Reflect on your experiences and try to identify the influences on your body image from childhood. 
  • Try weighing or 'body-checking' (pinching, measuring, mirror-checking) yourself less often. Focus on health and vitality, not weight, size and  shape.  
  • Make a pact to treat your body with respect, including eating well and not embarking on punishing exercise routines, fad diets or taking drugs. Try to shift to a healthier focus on how your body functions and consider all your body helps you do in life, rather than just focusing on how  your body looks. 
  • Get informed by reading up on body image issues. 
  • Develop reasons for exercising that are not focused on your body's appearance (such as stress release, vitality or improved concentration)  rather than concentrating only on changing your body shape. 
  • Limit social media use or adjust what comes into your feed to avoid negative social comparisons. 
    • Remember that media portrayals of muscular bodies are often curated and unrealistic. 
  • Be honest about your struggles with negative body image issues, and find safe places to talk about what you’re going through. Create exercise and eating goals that emphasise overall health and wellness rather than appearance. 
  • Help build body positivity by accepting your body and focusing on what you like about it. 

Team level 

Discussing what language and behaviours are acceptable and which are not within the team can ensure that all team members know what is  expected. These discussions can help negate any unconscious objectification between players as it will draw their attention to the issues of  objectification of bodies, especially among the members of the team. 

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