It’s All The Same Inside The Matrix

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Mia Hamm

An exercise in application of a line of thought.

From a recount of a study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (click through for full citation. Since I have no access to the actual journal I’m taking for granted the recount is accurately representing the study’s results).

258 US school girls and 171 female undergrads were studied to determine how they feel when they see sexualised images of female athletes. The three conditions: female athletes in a sporting context in sporting attire, female athletes in a sexualised context in lack of attire, and magazine models in bikinis.

The results:

The key finding is that the girls and undergrads who viewed the sexualised athlete images tended to say they admired or were jealous of the athletes’ bodies, they commented on the athletes’ sexiness, and they evaluated their own bodies negatively. Some also said they found the images inappropriate. The participants who viewed the bikini-clad glamour models responded similarly, except they rarely commented on the inappropriateness of the images, as if they’d come to accept the portrayal of women in that way. Daniels said that sexy images of female athletes “are no more likely to prompt viewers to reflect on their own physical activity involvement or appreciation of sport than sexualised model images.”

By contrast, participants who viewed the female athletes in a sporting context tended to comment on the athletes’ determination, passion and commitment; they wrote about feeling motivated to perform sport; and they reflected on their own sporting participation or sports they followed. “Infusing more performance images of female athletes into the media may be helpful in promoting physical activity among girls and young women,” Daniels said. “Currently, female athletes are largely absent from magazines targeted at teen girls.”

The above stops short of linking sexualized imagery with negative self-evaluation, although most media would consider it sufficient enough to misrepresent that it does. The results are interpreted to support increased usage of female athletes portrayed in a sporting capacity in media, which is what the study’s author wants to be true.

However the problem is not the nature of the image, but the propensity of the girls and undergrads to consistently measure themselves against the images. Whether that image is sexualized or athletic is irrelevant, it’s the pursuit of the ideal the image represents that is problematic. While the images are of real people and thus are not an abstract ideal, the variance of our individual capacities might as well make it so. What’s attainable for a professional athlete may not be so for a student, be it due to genetic or physical or economic or just plain time limitations.

You’re not supposed to think that way though. You can do anything, right? If Mia Hamm is doing it, why aren’t you? Get out there on the field, girl. Just don’t think about why you’re really there.

It’s tempting to throw your hands up and say, “Well, so what? It’s getting kids outside and exercising.” But at what point does using a brain hack to self-motivate cease to be productive and start to be undermining? If you’re using externally generated images to motivate, then it’s a short step to using externally defined standards to validate. Or maybe you’re already there, which is why the images work.

Or, to put it more succinctly and in a way Google will no doubt tell me was said elsewhere before, if you think either the abundance of sexualized images or lack of athletic images of women is the problem, you’re in The Matrix.

Refutations welcome. 

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11 Responses to It’s All The Same Inside The Matrix

  1. pulchrifex says:

    I read (some of) the research report. Some stray thoughts:

    - It’s interesting or ironic in light of our venue that the study stipulates that portrayals of women (or anyone) engaged in “instrumental activities” like sports are ipso facto “non-objectified.” The study defines “objectification” thus: “Women’s bodies are scrutinized as objects for the pleasure and evaluation of others, specifically males.” This is a perfectly fine definition, but it seems to include some problematic near-cognate situations — so if I only appreciate my wife for her cooking, that’s not “objectification” on this definition, but it seems to pick out the same sort of problem that “objectification” picks out. Maybe I’m thinking imprecisely, though; I’d be interested in the theory people’s take on this.

    - I’m not sure how a study like this would get around subjects’ impressions of what the experimenter wanted (“demand characteristics” in psych-ese). It actually works quite hard to do this: Any given subject sees only one photograph condition (sporting athletes, sexualized athletes, sexualized models), so they don’t get any information based on the athlete vs. model contrast, and the experiment is very open-ended — they were told to “write one paragraph describing the woman in the photograph and discussing how this photograph makes you feel,” and then some coders extracted themes from the paragraphs. But models are just such a salient category. When you get a picture of one and you’re asked to write about it, you’ve got to feel like something’s expected of you.

    - I’d be really interested to see what would have happened if the coders had included men, or if the pictures had included minorities. I don’t think these things invalidate the study, I’d just be interested.

    - “College women reported more admiration/jealousy toward the women in the photographs and commented more extensively on the sexiness of the women in the photographs than girls did.” The claim is that “Differing patterns might reflect a greater internalization of beauty standards among college women than high school girls,” and that’s where I first went too. But then “College women also remarked more on the physicality and sport intensity of the women in the photographs as well as their own physical activity involvement and athlete/fan status than girls did.” Which makes you start to think that maybe college women just issued more identifiable themes overall — they write more coherently. And/or they have a better sense for what the experimenter is expecting.

    I’m not quite sure about the OP’s conclusions, though. The claim is that “the problem is not the nature of the image, but the propensity of the girls and undergrads to consistently measure themselves against the images.” But there’s a very reasonable rejoinder to this — the impulse to use others as a yardstick is good when the dimension you’re measuring is useful or desirable, bad when it’s not. Or, at any rate, presumably you’d like your writers to measure themselves against Jane Austen rather than Amanda Hocking, your statesmen to measure themselves against Madeleine Albright rather than Christine O’Donnell, your scientists to measure themselves against Marie Curie rather than Elizabeth Daniels (or, for that matter, me). The reason that you don’t want girls to try to look like Erin Heatherton isn’t that they might be disappointed when they fail, it’s that the goal isn’t worthy of them. (This is, of course, rank paternalism, but I am a father and I know it’s true.)

    Just to push too far in the opposite direction: What’s the real alternative to “using externally defined standards to validate”? Do you really believe that there are no useful role models, that no one else’s opinion matters?

    (Now, whether being good at sports is *really* better than being sexy is a very fair question. Or, at any rate, as long as we’re asking for ponies, we might as well ask for engineer ponies or politician ponies rather than athlete ponies. But I don’t think much of the OP’s point turns on the value of sports, as long as he’s willing to grant that some pursuits might be more valuable than looking sexy.)

  2. Keath says:

    Thanks pulchrifex for the thoughtful response.

    To handle the last matter first: correct, this has nothing to do with the value of sports vs. sexy. You could substitute any multitude of designations and the overall point would remain the same. Sports vs. sexy just happened to be the study that popped up when I was mulling this over.

    Your point re: higher level talent to measure against is well made and valid. My question in response would be “which of these two is preferable: a writer who aims for Jane Austen and feels a failure because they don’t make it or a writer who aims for Amanda Hocking and feels pride despite not making it because they gave it their best shot.” I think most would agree the second. Becoming the next Amanda Hocking might be an unworthy goal by the sound of it but could be quite empowering if done with focus on the individual’s performance against their personal established norms. To avoid a hot button topic, let’s assume this self-measurement is all done in a non-narcissistic manner.

    This return query feeds into the part of your response I really liked – your question of if we can find useful role models and if other’s opinions matter. Ideally it’d be best if we could self-motivate and self-validate based on our own recognition and valuation of our individual efforts without outside influence. I think that’s practically impossible given the way life is currently structured. But even the worst role model can prove the most enriching if the individual undertakes the process in the proper way (i.e. the above Amanda Hocking query).

    To approach my original point in that paragraph, which was probably poorly articulated, from a different direction: the girls/women in this study, whom I think are representative of society at large, don’t have the skill set to frame these images and ideals in such a way. They gauge against either an abstract ideal (by which I mean it does not exist in reality) or a person who’s level of accomplishment is due to essential factors not able to be replicated by the subject (i.e. the subject doesn’t have the time to train like athletes at a professional level). The subject’s individual performance isn’t measured against their personal history, it’s measured against an ideal, and usually in a tunnel vision sense (i.e. the filmmaker who measures himself against Woody Allen’s productivity while disregarding the impact this trait has created in Allen’s personal life).

    Granted some discomfort through comparison can be healthy since it spurs us to try harder, but it appears more often the discomfort is created and then leveraged for a third party’s purpose (i.e. sell you the new Nike Athletic Wear line). Then it doesn’t matter if you’re aiming for Jane Austen or Amanda Hocking, you’re still buying a new Apple laptop because you think it’ll help you focus and write more creatively.

  3. Guy Fox says:

    Wow. Here’s a linkto the full study.

    Interesting post, and kudos to pulchrifex for such a thoughtful reply. P. hinted at a point that deserves more attention because it’s important and obvious: girls aged 13-22 are just about the most insecure beings in the universe. And this is totally natural. They haven’t accomplished anything yet, their lives are barely formed, they’re no longer girls, yet not quite women, etc. If you don’t know what you’re worth (i.e. able to assess yourself in absolute terms), you can only compare (i.e. assess yourself in relative terms). This insecurity is also reflected in many typical adolescent behaviours like wearing gaudy clothes and make-up. “Look at me, but let’s keep this superficial! Please!?” N.B. this is true of Guys too. Show a Guy in that age range a picture of a well-developed zucchini, and he’ll start to sweat and babble. These people would be just as insecure if you showed them their classmates’ exam scores, pictures of their friends’ parents speedboats, Paris Hilton’s chihuahua, etc. Ask little kids the same questions, and it’d just be icky (for everyone). Ask seasoned grandmas who’ve seen and done a thing or two, and they’ll probably find it a poor use of their time, when they could be baking, darning, going to work, weeding, resting, etc.

    Another curious move in the study is Ms. Daniels’s choice to use open coding, because it’s less constraining and deductive than a theoretically informed coding frame, but she also has 4 pre-formed hypotheses that, surprise surprise, are born out in the results from her ‘open-coding’. It’s apparently fine to induce from your data as long as you’ve already deduced the acceptable Boundaries of Allowable Truth. Imagine this: You’re a grad student coder, who’s read your boss’s work and knows her soap box topics, you go into a coding meeting with her, what are you going to see? “Are you sure, Kameron, that a respondent’s observation that the athlete has surprisingly big boobs for someone who works out that much doesn’t really reflect the respondent’s own fear that her boobs and workout routine are inadequate? Really? Super! Me too! That’s inter-coder reliability!”

    There’s also racial aspect. c. 60% of the school girls and 30% of the college girls were non-white, but it seems that all of the athletes were white (because that’s ‘the dominant racial group portrayed in the media’). Could this not cloud the waters? In this case, aren’t you asking almost 50% of your sample not just “what do you think of these fit, accomplished, apparently confident young women?” but “what do you think of these fit, accomplished, apparently confident young white women?”. And as for the choice of sports, there are two (blonde) basketball players, but otherwise, we’ve got ice-skating, swimming, skateboarding, tennis, surfing, and softball. Those are all pretty white sports (Williams sisters are the exception to prove the rule).

    The authors chose the most insecure respondents in existence, and they didn’t just present them with an aspirational image of beauty, they showed them an aspirational alternate reality. Is anyone surprised that the results indicate the respondents felt inadequate? Could you reasonably expect any other outcome?

    • Keath says:

      Your and P’s breakdown of the methodology flaws of the study are fascinating.

      I agree with the observation that seasoned grandmas wouldn’t care, provided they aren’t the grandmas getting botox and implants to avoid being identified as grandmas. Children and seniors always seem to be the ones outside the Matrix, the former because they haven’t been indoctrinated fully and the later because they can see through it. Which is perhaps why their views are often marginalized. “Grandma doesn’t need a new laptop, thank you, my 15 year old desktop works just fine for checking AOL.” Crazy old coot!

      Of course the whole validity of my argument rests on the possibility that this group of girls can develop the ability to look at the images without negative self comparision. This would be the true strength test, so to speak. I would like to think it’s possible …

  4. sdenheyer says:

    The level of analysis and insight in the comments on this one is impressive.

    I’d like to wade in and ask to tether it back to outcomes – what does the non-Matrix look like? How do we deal with aspirational images sanely?

    As far as I can tell, it looks like this: “When considering an aspirational figure, always remember that your brain evolved to compare yourself to others in a society of ~100 people. That athlete/model/scientist/politician/whatever won the birth lottery in a society of 7 billion. The laws of probability are against you being the best at anything, but that doesn’t make the goal of personal self-improvement less fulfilling.”

    That’s a trite sentiment, but I don’t see another way out – that is, I don’t see how a study such as this shows us one. Maybe I’m still in the Matrix, but if so, I need someone to explain what that means.

    • Keath says:

      Thanks for joining the discussion sdenheyer.

      My present thought is if you can deal with aspirational images without feeling negative self-worth, then you’re outside the Matrix.

      The non-Matrix would be a society of persons that respect and admire the accomplishments of others without taking it personally, so to speak. To use the subjects of the study in the post as a more specific visual, it would be the girls looking at all three groups of images and not feeling bad about themselves afterwards.

      I think the way out of the Matrix would start with the thought process you mentioned in your comment, building on that until the thought process upon seeing the images doesn’t make any comparision between them and the self at all.

      Self improvement would be measured by the self against the self. So instead of saying “After a year I still can’t play like Mia Hamm! Man, I sure do suck,” you acknowledge and take pride that you have made specific and measurable improvements over the last year. Then you use your new level of play as the measurement for further improvement going forward. Mia Hamm might be a nice inspiration to get you on the field, but she shouldn’t be anywhere in the discussion of how you view your personal performance.

      I defer to Guy Fox on this one – his original comment a few posts ago is what started me thinking on this. I’m still kicking around a lot of these ideas so feel free to challenge and/or expand on any of them as you see fit.

      • Guy Fox says:

        My present thought is if you can deal with aspirational images without feeling negative self-worth, then you’re outside the Matrix.

        It seems that unless you move beyond the range of advertising (good luck) and maybe mass culture as a whole, you’ll be physically in the Matrix. As I use the term, it’s the semiotic network that seduces us into e-value-ating things we don’t know. (e.g. “That guy on TV is scum because he’s a liberal/fundamentalist/vegan/roughneck. No, I’ve never met him and don’t wanna!”). Eventually, you end up evaluating these symbols with reference to other symbols, and there is no substance at all underneath. That’s Baudrillard’s hyperreality. So as long as we’re in a consumer society where communication is generally one-way and from the few to the many (i.e. mass media), we’re stuck physically in the Matrix.

        However, you can stop the Matrix from getting inside your head. You can’t unplug, but you can give yourself a daily red pill to remind you what around you is real and what’s not. Seeing a picture in the paper/on the interwebs doesn’t tell you anything about what’s in the picture, only about the relationship between you and whoever manufactured and published that picture. Everybody knows that shots of models and ‘beautiful’ celebrities are staged, airbrushed, doctored, photoshopped, but even serious media outlets doctor images to induce reactions in you (to sell copies and ads); it’s not just the religious nuts. If you see a picture of a celebrity or even someone improbably beautiful, imagine them as a puking baby, as an incontinent and demented senior, as a terrified teenager, breaking out in hives before a job interview, on the toilet constipated, or in any other situation that we all know happens to everyone, but that the camera will not allow you to see unless it serves the current narrative. When you’re offered a symbol, notice, ask yourself why that symbol for whose benefit, and remind yourself of what lies underneath.

        Seeing everything in reference to yourself is the narcissism that TLP warns about, and it’s easy to see how it coincides with this semiotic web: if everything you see is just a web of symbols without substance, then won’t you see yourself that way too? And just like every red light (symbol) is threatened by the coming green (another symbol), won’t you, in a symbolic existence, be threatened by countervailing symbols? Don’t think about these, just blurt out the first, instinctive answers: if Republicans win, then ______ lose. If you have a Louis Vuitton bag, you probably also have _________. AXE deodorant is for ______ who love _______. Guys who drive Porsches also ______________. Having learned mass media’s grammar, you can answer those without even knowing what the answers mean. Of course, you have a semantic value in that grammar too, and if you start finishing sentences where you appear using somebody else’s grammar, you’ll be threatened, invigorated, turned on, scared and nauseated by things you’ve never experienced. Somebody else tells you what to think of yourself, and then they can play that image to you like Pavlov’s dinner bell. Be angry now. Be relieved. Be scared. Be hungry. In your own head, you become the hub of the semiotic web because everything speaks to you, but that centrality is an illusion, and you can’t control any of it. A proper headf*ck. You’ll fight to gain control of your symbolic self, but you can’t get to where the images and the whole web is produced, so those around you end up suffering the effects of your rage by proxy. (Yes, a lot of this is derived/distilled from/inspired by TLP, but I can’t cite better than this here.)

        I was born in the Matrix, and I’ve spent almost my entire life in here. I can only imagine life on the outside, and heaven only knows how realistic that image is. But as long as I know I’m in it and how it works, I can console myself with the conceit that I’m more than a 65 watt battery.

        While we’re expressing gratitude, yes, this is engaging and rewarding. Thanks to all regular commenters and contributors here.

        • DGS says:

          Brother, that was a superb summation. From my experience those outside US with countries where money is tighter find it much easier to understand who they are and when to start munching the death cookie. But the reality is – they do still get headfaked, whether by “higher moda” or “cultural standards of having a family by 30″ – I could be wrong but it seems there is always a Matrix – game designed by someone else to get you to generate those watts dollars and not to jitter the system too much. So the proposition for the benefit of saner living could be to identify with what you enjoy doing/accomplished feats/traits you aspire and strive to maintain – then own all that and if you are finding yourself drifting away from people around you who keep talking about which office building floor their office is on after being friends for years…then c’est la vie?

          • Tim says:

            I think that this is because the systems/subcultures that are still around are the ones which inherently perperuate to the next generation. Like evolution.
            Also because humans naturally pass expectations and ways of living from generation to generation through rearing as a sort of social DNA, and we are basicly noticing that and going ‘oh, that’s not nice if it’s now maladaptive’.

            What is interesting is the difference between these traditional expectations and late 20th century American (international) culture. You get the feeling that the matrix of advertising and aspiration was almost deliberately created by people like Ed Bernays, but I wonder if it is actually an emergent, inevitable product of modern comunciations.
            Think about it – this past century, uniquely, we have a literate population, all of them consuming, demanding mass media. And the main force on that media is to make people buy it. Identity is a great way of making people buy things, and we were always going to discover that.
            So essentially, take humans, give them mass comunication and mass litracy, add a little capitalism, and you will get this. Every time.

            I’ll be watching china with interest – this is a ‘new’ population with a subculture protected by language, and until lately shielded by ‘boring’ state media. I think consumer culture will develop. Civilisation depends on it. Apparantly. That says a lot.

        • Keath says:

          Sorry for the belatedness of this, but thanks for that comment – it’s given me lots of food for thought these past couple days!

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