Mom tells us to dress conservatively if we want men to respect us for who we are on the proverbial inside. Women are also often told that showing too much skin invites trouble. But a new study shows that when it come to the supposedly inverse correlation between revealing your body and being taken seriously, men need to cover up, too.
In an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on November 10, University of Maryland psychologist Kurt Gray and colleagues from Yale and Northeastern University debunk long-held beliefs about the nature of objectification. Common sense tells us the amount of clothing someone wears can't physically affect their intellect, but the researchers say the six studies they conducted reveal that "taking off a sweater -- or otherwise revealing flesh -- can significantly change the way a mind is perceived" -- though not in the way you would think. Researchers found when a person is more clothed, they are seen as having more mental agency; when those clothes are shed, the viewer's sense of that subject’s ability to feel emotion and sensations was heightened.
The study is groundbreaking because, counter to the commonly-held belief that it’s always men objectifying women with "the male gaze," women in the study were just as likely to judge their male peers differently when their clothes were removed. The results were also significant because they showed that when we "objectify" someone, we don't think they are a mindless object -- we just see the objectified person as primarily an emotional, sensual being, rather than a primarily rational one.
Also surprising was the finding that wearing more revealing clothes may make others less less likely to hurt you -- which flies in the face of the argument that women dressing provocatively are effectively asking to be attacked. While subjects wearing little or no clothing were perceived as "less morally responsible" (thus reinforcing the advice of mothers everywhere to cover up), Gray wrote, "Others appear to be less inclined to harm people with bare skin and more inclined to protect them. In one experiment, for example, people viewing male subjects with their shirts off were less inclined to give those subjects uncomfortable electric shocks than when the men had their shirts on."
The study results support the idea that showing too much skin is a bad idea at work -- for men as well as women. As Gray writes, "body perceptions may lead those who are characterized in terms of their bodies to be seen as more reactive and emotional, traits that may also serve to work against career advancement." But the findings may mean good news for your sex life: "A focus on the body, and the increased perception of sensitivity and emotion it elicits," Gray wrote, “might be good for lovers."