Women are just sex objects! Making a classic male sexist comment like that has long been taboo in Western societies. Yet two studies, one Belgian, the other American, actually go a long way in proving that women really are perceived that way.
A team working with psychologist Philippe Bernard at the Université Libre in Brussels found that lingerie-clad women on photographs were perceived more as objects than as people although this was not the case with scantily clad men.
To demonstrate this, the psychologists made use of a mechanism known as the inversion effect. If photographs are viewed upside down, viewers find it more difficult to recognize faces and people. However they have no problem recognizing objects, such as buildings or cars, when photographs of these are shown to them upside down.
For the experiment, 78 test subjects were shown photos of men and women wearing underwear or bathing suits. The subjects were then shown each picture again with an inverted version, and asked to say which one they had originally seen.
The result was that the subjects had much more trouble recognizing the photos of men that were shown upside down. This was not the case with photographs of women, where it didn’t seem to make much difference if they were standing on their head or not.
Checking out a potential partner
In an article published in Psychological Science magazine, the researchers concluded that men tend to be perceived as persons, while women tend to be perceived as objects. And the most surprising thing, says Sarah Gervais, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska and co-author of the study, is that the blame for this cannot just be shunted onto men: women perceive other women in exactly the same way.
Gervais explains that the reasons for this may be different: men do it because they are checking out a potential partner, while women are looking at the competition by comparing themselves to the other woman.
A second study that Gervais conducted at the University of Nebraska came up with the same results. She used another method, however: in the photographs shown to subjects, the men and the women were wearing more clothes so that their gender-specific body parts did not immediately catch the eye.
Researchers in the second study also made use of a different psychological mechanism, which is that when humans look at an object the brain either processes what we see as an entity (global processing) or as a collection of several parts (local processing). Gervais says that we normally process objects locally but that global processing is used where people are involved. However, as her article in the Journal of Social Psychology reveals, there is a gender component at play here as well.
In her experiment, 83 students were shown pictures of human bodies. They were later shown pictures of the same bodies and pictures of parts of bodies. The result was that the subjects remembered women better when they were only shown parts of them, such as breasts or legs. They remembered men best when they saw their whole body a second time. The scientists concluded that people see women as they do inanimate objects: as linked individual parts.
"We don’t divide people into parts except where women are concerned, and that is really remarkable,” says Gervais, adding that there are still many open questions such as how homosexuals perceive women, or fathers their daughters.
A cultural perspective
Another aspect of the research would be to see if American and European perceptions of women carried over into other cultures. Social psychologist Jens Förster of the University of Amsterdam says he suspects that perceptions would be different in Asian societies where the role of individuals is subordinate to that of the group, which could change the perception of the individual woman.
However, there are indications that women are perceived similarly -- as sex objects -- around the world. In 1989, psychologist David Buss of the University of Michigan studied 37 cultures and found that where sex and partnership are concerned men and women tend to use stereotyped distinguishing characteristics.
That points not to the objectification of women but to the fixation on specific body parts. The bottom line however is that the two new studies could lead to quite remarkable conclusions that would end up having significant repercussions on male-female relations.
Jens Förster says: "The real consequences of these studies will only reveal themselves after many other studies have been conducted.” The next step, he says, is establishing if the perception of women as sex objects means that they are treated differently than men. If so Förster says there is reason for hope, because he does not believe this behavior to be innate. "We can unlearn it, get out of the habit of it."
Neurologist Gerhard Roth of the University of Bremen disagrees with this. While there is no comparable neurobiological study – it is extremely difficult to use technology like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to research such links – it is possible to see when something appears attractive to a subject from unconscious reactions in the deepest recesses of the brain such as the hypothalamus and amygdala, which are strongly influenced by sex hormones like oxytocin and testosterone.
To Roth that means that the fixation on certain parts of the female body can be stronger or weaker depending on the culture but can’t be left out of the equation entirely.
So even if studies show that women are perceived as objects the question remains as to what consequences that has on behavior – for men and women both.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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