Nov. 3, 2013 -- OK guys, they've got us nailed to the wall. The first thing we look at when we see a woman is her body, not her face, or her eyes, or the color of her hair. We look at her breasts, her waist, her hips, in search of the perfect figure.
But, according to new research, so do the women, when they see another woman. They check her out, much the same as the men.
And possibly for the first time, they have based their conclusions on sophisticated eye tracking technology that told them men look first at the parts of the body associated with sex, especially the breasts, and their gaze remains there the longest. Eventually they get around the looking at the face.
The research, published in the journal Sex Roles, was led by psychologist Sarah Gervals of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and it addresses a growing concern among human behaviorists called "objectification," the inclination to treat members of the opposite sex as objects, not living personalities.
"According to objectification theory, Western cultures and men treat women as if their appearance is the primary basis of their worth," the study notes. "And women are chronically looked at and evaluated by other people to determine whether their appearance fits cultural ideals of beauty, thereby determining their overall value."
Perhaps the most surprising finding in the study is the female participants also looked first at another woman's body, indicating that Western women have developed "physique anxiety," which can lead to decreased cognitive performance and self-silencing.
All of this, the researchers conclude, stems from men's tendency to "ogle," "leer at" or "check out" the women they meet, based primarily on their bodies.
The scientists obviously would like to see that changed, although relationships between the genders is based on eons of social evolution, and in that sense we are similar to many other animals that check out the plumage of every potential mate they meet, guarding against leaving their genes in the wrong body. So it's not clear yet how that is going to change.
Although this research was conducted in the United States, it dovetails with similar findings elsewhere in the Western world. Scientists in Italy found that both sexes were primed to focus on a woman's appearance, not the brain or her personality or her creativity.
Researchers in New Zealand also found that men looked first at the breasts, then at the waist, and finally at the face.
And in France, scientists found that the same woman was approached more frequently by men in a bar when her breasts appeared larger than average through the help of a padded bra.
So there is much research supporting the new findings from Nebraska, showing that men, and sometimes both genders, "engage in objectifying behavior towards women," the study notes. However, it is not known if the same thing occurs in cultures outside of the western world.
To carry out their research, the Nebraska team used Photoshop to manipulate the bodies of 10 college-aged women dressed in white tank tops and blue jeans. Sixty-five students, 29 women and 36 men, watched as the images flashed on a computer screen while their eye movements were being tracked.
Each participant saw the same woman in three different body shapes, thanks to the art of digital photography: larger breasts and lower waist-to-hip-ratio; average breasts and average waist-to-hip-ratio; and smaller breasts and higher waist-to-hip-ratio.
Some of the participants were told to judge the women on the basis of appearance, and others were told to judge them on the basis of personality, and as expected those who were judging the appearance spent a lot of time checking out the body, especially the breasts. But so did those who were supposed to be thinking about the woman's personality, although they were quicker to move from focusing on the waist to the face.
That held true even for the images that showed the models with a manipulated body that fell short of the sleek, well proportioned, frame that is widely regarded as the ideal. At least in some parts of the world.
So "the bodies of all women, regardless of attractiveness, are persistently looked at, evaluated, and potentially objectified," the study noted. And that holds true whether the observer is a man, or a woman. The researchers ended with this conclusion:
"This research contributes to a growing literature indicating that men, but also women, see women as objects."