Romantic attachment anxiety predicts higher levels of self-objectification over time in both men and women

Feeling anxious about your romantic relationship and fearing abandonment leads to stronger tendencies to sexually objective yourself, according to new research published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

“My colleagues (Dr. Larissa Terán and Dr. Jennifer Stevens Aubrey) and I were interested in this topic because sexual objectification and self objectification are concerning issues in our society, especially among girls and women,” said study author Jian Jiaoan assistant professor at Boise State University.

“Also, although there is a large number of studies showing the negative consequences of those issues, relatively very few has examined how we could buffer such an objectifying culture. As a relationship scholar, I have been motivated to explore and identify relational factors that could protect people from objectification.”

The new finding are based in part on attachment theory, which posits that parent–child interactions shape how individuals perceive and behave in personal relationships. People can be secure or insecure in their attachments, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. Individuals with attachment anxiety frequently worry about being rejected or abandoned. In contrast, those with attachment avoidance tend to be stubbornly independent and have difficulty trusting others.

For their new study, Jiao and his colleagues first surveyed 392 college students from the United States. The participants reported how often they experienced being sexually objectified by others, how often they engaged in self-objectification, and completed an assessment of romantic attachment styles.

Those with a high level of self-objectification strongly agree with statements such as “I often think about how my body must look to others” and “My physical appearance is more important than my personality.”

Among women, interpersonal sexual objectification, self-objectification, and attachment insecurity were all positively correlated. Women who reported greater interpersonal sexual objectification tended to report more self-objectification. Additionally, women who reported greater interpersonal sexual objectification and greater self-objectification tended to experience more attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance in their romantic relationships. Among men, only self-objectification and attachment anxiety were positively associated.

“However, given the cross-sectional nature of the data, the direction of the association could not be determined,” the researchers noted. “It could be that individuals’ self-objectification contributes to their attachment anxiety in romantic relationships. Meanwhile, it is equally plausible that individuals’ attachment anxiety toward romantic partners makes them more likely to treat themselves as an object to be looked at by others.”

To understand the temporal order between these variables, the researchers conducted a separate longitudinal study of 283 young adults. The participants completed the same assessments used in the previous study. About six months later, they completed the assessments again.

Jiao and his colleagues found that heightened attachment anxiety during the baseline survey predicted greater levels of self-objectification six months later. Neither interpersonal sexual objectification nor self-objectification, in contrast, predicted subsequent changes in attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance. This was true for both men and women.

“This finding indicates that feeling anxious about the responsiveness of the partner and living in a fear of abandonment directed individuals’ attention to their appearance (ie, self-objectification),” the researchers said. “People may be accustomed to shifting their thinking to their appearance when anxious about the lack of attention from their partner because they may think they are not ‘good enough’ or ‘sexually attractive enough’ to yield the attention they year for from their partner.”

The findings have some practical implications for those in romantic relationships.

“Perhaps the most meaningful takeaway is that having a partner that makes us feel safe and secure could help reduce our over-emphasis on our physical appearance and sexuality, which leads to a wide range of psychological problems,” Jiao explained. “Although it might be difficult to ask for such a partner, at least we could try to be such a partner that brings safety and security to the other, as doing so will help reduce the extent to which our partner objectifies themselves (eg, overly focused on their physical appearance and sexuality over the other more important part of themselves as a human being).”

The study, “Buffering an Objectifying Culture: Interpersonal Sexual Objectification, Self-Objectification, and Attachment Anxiety“, was authored by Jian Jiao, Larissa Terán, and Jennifer Stevens Aubrey.

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