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10 August 2012
“Seeing” is a complex process; it involves not only your eye picking up and light and converting that light energy into nerve signals it also entails your brain interpreting those signals and building a picture of the world. So “seeing” is actually a very subjective process. Now a new study has reported on how we see the bodies of men and women and the differences are quite significant.
On 1st June 2012 in this news column we reported a study that had shown that we perceive women’s bodies as objects but see male bodies as humans. The latest research has gone a step further to show that we see a woman’s body as a collection of parts whereas we see a man’s body as a whole. Interestingly, both women and men do this.
Different types of processes go on in the brain when we think about objects like houses, chairs, and so on compared to the global processing that is involved when we see people. Your brain can process objects by breaking them down to their component parts and given the earlier research these researchers wanted to see if that is what we do when looking at women.
For the study people were presented with dozens of images of fully-clothed, average looking women and men. Each person was shown from head to knee looking directly at the camera. After a pause two new images were shown on the screen. One image was the same as the original while the other image was a cropped version of the original image focusing on a sexual body part.
The results were consistent across both men and women; women could be recognised by their sexual body parts whereas men could not. This implies that women are seen as their component t parts while men tend to be viewed globally.
Women and men do this so it is not necessarily a sexual thing. The researchers theorised that maybe men do it because they are interested and maybe women do it as a comparison. They admit themselves though, that this is speculation and it still does not explain why we do it for women and not men.
The real point is how can we overcome this tendency which contributes to women being objectified? The researchers think that changing the context in which we see women might encourage more global processing of them, and they have conducted preliminary experiments to suggest that this is true. If advertisers and movie makers will take this on board it could be a huge step forward in our evolution as a species, if we can encourage seeing women in their totality. After all, we do know that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.