The new work, appearing in the journal Sex Roles, intricately mapped the visual behavior of both men and women as they viewed images of different females with different body types.
Researcher Sarah Gervais said that when asked to focus on a woman’s appearance, the study participants largely looked at women in “that way” – quickly moving their eyes to a woman’s breasts and other sexualized body parts, rather than the face. Though the men in the study exhibited such visual behavior consistently, the researchers found that women’s eye patterns were similar to men’s.
Although the results were consistent with anecdotal expectations of gaze behavior, Gervais said she was surprised with some of the findings, especially how strongly women’s visual patterns suggest they objectify other women. “We do have a slightly different pattern for men than women, but when we looked at their overall dwell times – how long they focused on each body part – we find the exact same effects for both groups,” she said. “Women, we think, do it often for social comparison purposes.”
Another key finding related to the role of body shape. Even when study instructions encouraged the participants to focus on the personality of the female target – a manipulation that would seem likely to lead to additional focus on the images’ faces – women with hourglass figures were perceived more positively than women with straighter figures by male participants, the researchers found.