New research in Psychology of Women Quarterly explores the relationship between how one presents themselves on social media platforms and their tendency to self-objectify. Researcher Shilei Chen and colleagues conducted four studies across different social media platforms looking for confirmation of this relationship and its potential causes.
Their results indicate that as women engage in more strategic self-presentation on social media platforms, their self-objectification increases. Their work also revealed that approval motivation might be the key to this relationship. Recognizing the consequences faced by women and girls who are driven to present perfected versions of themselves on social media is valuable for clinicians and parents alike.
Strategic self-presentation is the process of editing the self so that a pleasing version is exposed to the world. Before social media, this may have meant wearing makeup or lying about economic or relationship status. Through social media, one can curate a face, body, and lifestyle that is not genuine and requires one to repeat disingenuous behaviors with every online interaction.
Objectification theory may help to explain what motivates strategic self-presentation. The theory posits that “women who live in objectifying cultures are socialized to prioritize hegemonic femininity norms that emphasize beauty, appearance, pleasing others, and sexual appeal.” Engaging in self-objectification means one is driven to objectifying behaviors internally rather than just through external pressure.
Self-objectification can be examined in two ways as a state or trait. State self-objectification is when one temporarily feels they need to modify their appearance to meet feminine expectations in a specific situation. Trait self-objectification is when the impulse to meet cultural norms of femininity is a general tendency. Self-objectification has been found to be associated with adverse mental health outcomes and poorer cognitive performance.
Chen and colleagues sought to confirm and explain the potential connection between strategic self-presentation and trait self-objectification on social media. The first study obtained 167 female users of Tinder. These participants completed the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale, a measure of self-objectification. This assessment includes statements like “I often worry if the clothes I wear make me look good;” respondents rate the statements on a scale of 1-7 (strongly disagree-strongly agree). Subjects also took measures of approval motivation and strategic and authentic self-presentation.
The results from this effort revealed there was a positive correlation between strategic self-presentation and trait self-objectification, which was mediated by approval motivation. Additionally, there was a negative correlation between self-objectification and authentic self-presentation.
Study two recruited 159 female Facebook users and replicated the process used in study one. Their findings were the same as in study one, except they did not see a negative relationship between self-objectification and authentic self-presentation. Finally, study three examined why this was so and measured self-presentation behaviors like photo editing and filters. This research revealed that self-objectification and self-presentation behaviors were related and mediated by approval motivation. In addition, they found that approval motivation was the bridge from self-objectification to authentic self-presentation as well.
The fourth and final study recruited 102 women to attend a meeting online. At the beginning of the meeting, they took the same assessments used in the earlier studies, and then they were asked to take and edit three selfies they could use as new profile pictures. Once editing was finished, participants were asked to show pictures before and after the editing. They then had to share what they did to the photos, and the researcher kept count of the changes they made. This study found a slight positive correlation between participant editing behavior and strategic self-presentation and self-objectification.
In summarizing their work, the research team declared, “Our findings across the first three studies supported the proposition that trait self-objectification is positively linked to strategic self-presentation behaviors on various social media platforms. Studies 1–3 also supported the hypothesis that the need for approval mediates the relation between trait self-objectification and strategic self-presentation on social media.” This research provides meaningful insight into how social media engagement may harm well-being.
The researchers acknowledged a few limitations to their work. First, they used a cross-sectional research model, leaving questions about the effects of their variables long-term. In addition, they only looked at one variable as the connection between self-objectification and strategic self-presentation. There may be other variables that are key to the relationship as well.
The study, “Women’s Self-objectification and strategic self-presentation on social media“, was authored by Shilei Chen, Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg, and Patrick J. Leman