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Barbara & Shannon Kelley

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Aren't We Greater Than the Sums of Our Parts?

Posted: 07/31/2012 3:02 pm

I'm off to Mexico tomorrow, and up until a couple of hours ago, I possessed exactly zero pairs of non-running shorts. Ergo, I sucked it up and made a speed-shopping trip between a quick lunch and a (not so quick) meeting so that I might procure a pair or two. And in the dressing room, my internal dialogue was not along the lines of These Are Cute or These Are Heinous, but instead, something more like this: How does my butt look? My thighs? Does the color make my skin look even paler than it already is? Does the cut make me look shorter than I already am? (I suppose it's no wonder that up until today, I owned no shorts. I have better things to do than entertain this variety of nonsense. Like sterilizing mason jars for bulk snacks. Or hunting for unicorns.)

Turns out, though, there's a reason I do this, and you likely do it, too. And no, it's not that we're obsessed with our looks or have poor body images or are bereft of self esteem. Nope. According to a new study led by Sarah Gervais at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, people -- men or women -- are basically programmed to view women as a constellation of parts. Arms. Abs. Butt. Lips. Eyes. Toes. Whole person? Not so much. Eurkalert had this to say about the study:

When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives.

This new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women -- and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.

The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on "global" cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of "local" cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

Now, said study could only show that this is the case, not why this is the case. I, however, am not above speculating: Blame the media, society, your parents, teachers, coaches, friends, Barbie or Vogue, whomever you like. There is no shortage of scapegoats, and they've all likely earned at least a little bit of that blame. Even still: Argh.

One upside: The study found that when circumstances were altered to encourage the participants to take a more "global" approach to evaluating the subjects, they were more likely to see the women as whole people. We'll stay tuned for the study that figures out how to alter the circumstances of life-in-general accordingly.

In the meantime, though, I kind of have to wonder: What if this sort of reductionist objectification isn't just limited to our physical selves? I mean, it's bad enough that we're basically conditioned to view women as Ms. Potatoheads, a grouping of legs and arms and teeth and butts and breasts and thighs. But what about the rest of it, the other ways we pick ourselves apart? In the same way we judge ourselves (and others) according to a running checklist of physical attributes (I'm tall and I have good hair and pretty toes but no boobs but good abs but my arms could be more toned and my teeth need whitening...), do we dissect ourselves on the other stuff, too? (Well, I'm not that organized, but I'm very successful but I should be more physically active and my spiritual life basically consists of praying for good parking spaces, but I have good friends... though my romantic life's in the toilet. At least I am super good with money...)

Am I onto something? Methinks yes. That stuff's tougher to brush off, sure, but, think for a minute, about that Ms. Potatohead study. It makes you mad, right? It's clearly wrong, isn't it? A woman is clearly more than a bucket of parts, isn't she?

So what if cataloguing the other stuff is just as wrong?

It feels helpful, in a way, to keep score -- like we could plug in all the data and then some magical algorithm will spit out a number. To tell us what, though? You are doing "This Well" at life, I guess. But that would be nonsense, because things can look great from the outside and be terrible inside. And things can look not particularly impressive on the outside but be pretty incredible from the inside. A random sampling of body parts gives you no real indication of the whole, but it's kind of impossible to describe in what way, precisely, that is so; why the parts, taken separately, are so inadequate. So I just wonder: What if the dissecting we do of ourselves, the inventories we take of our lives, are just as false, just as misleading? What if our value as a person has nothing to do with the score on the checklist? And what if we are, truly, greater than the sum of our parts?

 
 
 

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