Hansen: Even women ogle women's bodies, but there's hope for us all - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:16 am
Hansen: Even women ogle women's bodies, but there's hope for us all

Men are, in fact, pigs.

That's the snap conclusion from a quick glance at a newly published UNL study — a study that used eye-tracking technology and duly recorded members of the male species ogling a woman's body twice as much as they looked at the woman's face.

This was, in fact, my snap conclusion after I read the Internet headlines, my tidy little column idea as I dialed the phone numbers of the UNL psychology professors who did the study.

They listened to my tidy little conclusion and politely pointed out that, in the exact same study, women were shown to ogle women's bodies nearly as much as men did.

To repeat: The study found that women stare at women's breasts and women's hips almost exactly as long as men do.

Say what, scientists?

“Women are doing this to women, as well. That is what's surprising,” agrees Sarah Gervais, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who has done years of research on the “objectifying gaze” and how it affects women.

Michael Dodd, the other UNL professor who did the study, expressed this thought more academically.

“Everybody is a pig!” he yelled, only half-jokingly, into the phone.

The study, in which 65 UNL students donned the Eyelink II eyeball tracking system — seriously, that is what it's called — and looked at a series of female images flashed onto a screen, actually has two far more fascinating conclusions than my fine colleagues at Jezebel and USA Today and the New York Daily News passed around the Internet Tuesday afternoon.

One conclusion is depressing. Women are objectified by both sexes. This builds upon Gervais' previous research that shows we all tend to see men as whole people and women as a collection of body parts.

And the second is more hopeful. The study shows that, with a slight tweak in instructions, both men and women will spend more time staring into a woman's eyes and less at her curves.

It suggests that our leering behavior — and the resulting objectification — isn't hardwired into us. It suggests we can change.

“People can stop doing this if they so desire,” Gervais says.

In the study, half of the 65 students were asked to rate a woman's appearance. They put the eye-tracking glasses on, sat alone in a room and watched a series of three-second images. These three-second images were all of the same woman, wearing nondescript jeans and a T-shirt.

But in some of the images, the woman had bigger breasts, enlarged in Photoshop. In some she had smaller hips. In some, she was curvy. In some, she was not.

The research subjects, both men and women, stared at the woman's face for about 35 percent of the allotted time. They concentrated on the chest about 15 percent of the time. The waist: 10 or so percent. The rest of the time they glanced at her hips, her legs, her stomach.

Total, the students looked at the woman's face roughly a third of the time and her body roughly two-thirds of the time.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

More creepily still, when the images flashed onto the screen, some of the students actually didn't start by looking at the woman's face.

They started by looking at her breasts. They started with the breasts even though they knew they were wearing eyeball-tracking technology.

Which raises the creepiest question: Where do we stare when our eyeballs aren't being tracked?

“I don't think people are aware of the degree to which we actually do this in your everyday lives,” Dodd said. “It's ubiquitous.”

This objectification of the female body has implications far beyond the actual staring. We tend to view women we objectify as less intelligent, less competent, less able to do their jobs, research shows.

In other words, when we view women as objects, we tend to treat them as objects, too.

All this leering, from both men and women, may have some basis in evolutionary biology, Dodd says. The men in the study may be looking at a woman's curves because, like our piggish ancestors, we are predisposed to look for a ideal child-bearing mate.

And the women in the study may be looking at those same curves to compare and contrast themselves with the caveman's other potential mates.

But it's fair to assume that, layered on top of that ancient history, is a whole lot of learned behavior. Eons of education and countless beer commercials have taught us it's OK to leer.

Which is why the second part of the UNL study — the part that Internet headlines like “Depressing Study: Men Look More At Your Body Than Your Face” ignored — is so important.

Half of the 65 students were not asked to rate the woman's appearance. Instead, they were asked to rate her personality.

They stared at the woman's face more than half of the time. They focused on the breasts and the waists for only a couple of milliseconds.

This is important, the professors think, because it shows that with one tweak of the human brain — the instruction to care about personality instead of hotness — the behavior of the students changed. It suggests that we aren't completely predisposed to ogle women. It suggests that all of us, male and female, can learn another way.

I asked Dodd, the male half of the research duo, if he had learned anything about his own gaze during the project.

“Yes,” he said immediately.

He began to notice more when his eyeballs wandered. He became conscious of what had sometimes previously been a subconscious act.

And he really started to think about what it meant when we fix our gaze on the breasts or the moneymaker instead of the face. He started to think about all the sexism, both obvious and subtle, that followed from that initial look-see.

“It makes you want to treat people more equally,” he said, sounding very much not like a swine.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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