Women of Haines self-objectify themselves less, shun beauty enhancements more, and keep themselves active and healthy compared to their counterparts in Anchorage.
This is all according to a recent study that surveyed a selection of women from each community, pitting the attitudes of big-town society against those of a rural community.
The study, titled "That Community Becomes You? An Examination of Community Differences in Self-Objectification and Related Variables," was conducted in 2009 and results were published in the Journal of General Psychology in July. It was authored by Desire Shepler, Gwen Lupfer-Johnson and Robert Boeckmann of University of Alaska Anchorage and Stephenie Chaudoir of Bradley University.
Shepler, social services director at Alaska Island Community Services in Wrangell, said she’s done previous studies on women’s self-objectifying but wanted to examine more about how a community affected women’s views of themselves. She had visited Haines several times and thought it represented the rural, outdoor-oriented atmosphere of a community she wanted to compare against the urban values of Anchorage.
Self-objectifying is when people view themselves through the eyes of others. Shepler said self-objectifying becomes unhealthy when a person "chronically" thinks of themselves in the third-person and burns up mental energy focusing on how they look to other people.
"It’s a tendency to turn yourself into an object," she said. "It’s when you walk into a room and the first thing you think of in those very first seconds is ‘How do I look to these people?’ It’s less about thinking ‘What am I capable of?’"
Women in the study were asked a variety of questions: how they view their appearance from an observer’s perspective, if they compare their bodies to those of women in advertising or entertainment, if they do things like wear make-up or diet to enhance their appearance and what kind of exercise or activities they take part in. The study authors noted participants in Anchorage averaged about 27 years old and many were university students while the women surveyed in Haines were on average just over 30 years old.
The researchers hypothesized they would discover the lack of services and businesses geared to focus on women’s appearance or distribute idealized versions of women in Haines – such as beauty salons, clothing stores, movie theaters and strip clubs – would mean that women would report feeling less pressure to emphasize or alter their appearance. The increased opportunities for outdoor activities in Haines would mean women focused on their abilities rather than appearance, Shepler said.
"Women don’t self-objectify when they’re climbing a mountain," Shepler said. "It’s not ‘How does my hair look when I’m climbing this mountain?’"
The results of the study supported the researchers’ hypothesis. The authors note, however, that there could be two forces combining to achieve this result: that the community as a whole puts less pressure on women to self-objectify and that women who are already more confident chose to live here. The abundance of outdoor and exercise opportunities in Haines also might help perpetuate better self-esteem.
" In order for physical exercise to be considered empowering, its focus should be on what one can do with one’s body rather than on how one’s body looks to others," the authors wrote.
Local Sue Libenson, who lived in Anchorage before moving to Haines years ago, said the study didn’t seem to ring true for her or her group of active, self-confident women in Anchorage. She said she knows plenty of women in the big city who hike, bike, and run and spend more time focused on their abilities than their appearance.
But J.J. Lende, 20, said the study seemed more reflective of her group of 20-something friends and acquaintances at the University of Alaska Anchorage, compared to her friends and lifestyle in Haines. Lende said she dresses and thinks differently about herself depending on if she’s at school in Anchorage or at home in Haines.
"In Haines I hang out with family, friends and people I’ve known since pre-school and we do stuff like hang out at the beach or go hiking," Lende said. "In Anchorage, we go to coffee shops or dinner or somewhere you have to drive so you aren’t really wearing hiking shoes out and about."
Shepler said the study isn’t necessarily a comment on how communities should concoct activities in order to help women not self-objectify, but it’s more an examination of when self-objectifying becomes unhealthy. She said it’s widely accepted that women who conform to certain beauty expectations have an easier time dating or landing a job in many instances.
"But at some point it becomes problematic," Shepler said.