The Role of Dress in Sexual Objectification

Sharron J. Lennon and Kim K. P. Johnson

Bibliographical guide

DOI: 10.5040/9781474280655-BIBART15001


Dress consists of all perceptible modifications of and supplements to the body. One of the first things noticed about another is the person’s appearance including dress. Objectification theory focuses on appearance and explains that women and girls in sexually saturated cultures are looked at, assessed, and potentially objectified by others, leading to self-objectification. Also, objectification by others—other-objectification—is thought to lead to self-objectification. Both types of objectification are associated with many detrimental outcomes. In studying objectification, researchers have developed experiments that involve manipulations of dress that reveal the body by showing skin, by tightness of dress, and/or by transparency of dress. Furthermore, other researchers using the strategy of content analysis have evaluated media content to assess objectification in the media partly by the extent to which dress of women and girls is revealing.

Since 2010 there has been a huge increase in published research focusing on sexual objectification. Using OneSearch, a search engine that searches a library’s journals and databases, 179 refereed research articles focused on sexual objectification were identified from the 1990s. A similar search of the period from 2010 through 2017 yielded 2,474 refereed research articles. Hence, sexual objectification is of growing interest to scholars. Dress has played a key role in that research, and therefore in sexual objectification, as body-revealing dress (hereafter “revealing dress”) has often been used as evidence of sexual objectification or in experimental research as a method to operationalize it.

To discuss relationships between dress and objectification, these and associated terms must be defined. In 1992, dress scholars Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins and Joanne Eicher first proposed that the term “dress” be used to refer to modifications of the body and/or supplements to the body. While the term “dress” might immediately call to mind an article of clothing worn by women, these researchers argued that the term was inclusive of all phenomena past, present, or future that could be categorized as a body modification and/or supplement. Body modifications are activities directed at the body that result in temporary or permanent changes and include tattoos, piercings, or whitened teeth. Body supplements are items added to the body such as glasses, watches, garments, and jewelry along with clothing. In this discussion, the focus is on dress as body supplements.

Revealing Dress

Dress can be used to both reveal and/or conceal the body. Dress that reveals the body is sometimes labeled immodest, provocative, suggestive, or sexy dress. In research the term “revealing dress” is usually dress that is transparent, formfitting, or exposes skin in some way. Items of dress that could be labeled as revealing include swimsuits, very short skirts, tight skirts, tight pants, tops or dresses that expose cleavage, tops or dresses that expose the top of the buttocks, tops that expose cleavage, any clothing made of sheer fabrics, or makeup worn over the entire body. The resulting appearance is often labeled as sexualized when areas of the body that are highlighted via dress are associated with sexual activity (breasts, buttocks, genitalia).

Researchers from a variety of disciplines have been interested in determining the meanings, motivations, and outcomes linked to wearing revealing dress. In the 1980s, research centered on meanings or inferences tied to people wearing revealing dress and those inferences were typically negative. Such a study was conducted by psychologists Antonia Abbey, Catherine Cozzarelli, Kimberly McLaughlin, and Richard Harnish in 1987. In part of their experiment, students viewed an image of a woman wearing revealing or non-revealing dress. As compared to the non-revealing dress, when wearing revealing dress the woman was rated more flirtatious, sexy, seductive, and promiscuous, but less considerate and sincere.

In the 1990s researchers were interested in women’s use of revealing dress and outcomes related to sexual violence (such as assault or harassment). Often these studies were experiments and found that women wearing revealing dress were seen as likely victims of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment and responsible for their own victimization. For example, in 1999, dress researchers Jane Workman and Elizabeth Freeberg asked undergraduates to read a date rape scenario, view a photograph of a date rape victim wearing either a short, moderate, or long-length skirt, and attribute responsibility to an alleged victim. Both men and women attributed the most responsibility to the victim wearing a short skirt.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, researchers continued to focus on inferences of women who wear revealing dress and the role of dress in attributions concerning victims of sexual violence. In 2010 Avigail Moor, a psychologist, investigated men’s attributions of women wearing revealing dress and women’s motivations for wearing revealing dress. Using a sample of Israeli students, she reported most women’s primary motivation for wearing such styles included liking the styles and a desire to be attractive. Few women reported a desire to arouse or seduce men as their motivation or a desire to be stared at or touched. However, most men indicated that women who wore revealing dress did so to seduce men (that is to say evoke sexual advances).

Nicolas Guéguen (2011), a social psychologist, also studied how women’s revealing dress impacted on men’s inferences and behavior. In his experiment a woman entered a bar wearing revealing dress or non-revealing dress. The length of time for the woman to be approached by a man was recorded. If contact was made, upon leaving the bar, the man was asked to answer some questions. The length of time prior to making contact was shortest when the woman wore revealing dress. As compared to a woman wearing non-revealing dress, the men indicated that they could probably get a date with the woman and have sex with her on a first date if she wore revealing dress.

Interested in attributions made about sexual assault victims, dress researchers Kim K. P. Johnson, Haewon Ju, and Juanjuan Wu in 2016 examined the effect of revealing dress on inferences made by college students concerning both an alleged victim and a perpetrator of a sexual assault. They reported that inferences of sexual interest were tied to victims described as wearing revealing dress.


In 2007, the American Psychological Association published a report discussing sexual objectification of girls. The report provided examples of how girls (and women) are depicted in revealing dress in Western cultures, and presented information about the consequences of such depictions—including sexual objectification or, simply, objectification. Sexual objectification occurs if one is treated as an object for another’s sexual use. Sharron J. Lennon and a team of dress researchers in 2017 noted that it is important to study sexual objectification because it is associated with negative consequences for both the objectified person and the objectifier.

To explain the consequences for women living in sexually objectifying cultures, in 1997, social psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts offered objectification theory. They argued that men routinely objectify women and that this objectification occurs in many forms, including sexual evaluation. One subtle form of sexual evaluation is the visual inspection of the female body (the objectifying gaze). Objectifying gaze between men and women is ubiquitous and occurs in real time in social encounters, in the visual media when social encounters are depicted, and in visual media that highlight bodies and body parts and align viewers with an implicit objectifying point of view.

According to the theory, the objectifying treatment of women and girls results in them internalizing an outsider’s perspective and viewing themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated primarily for their physical attributes. Internalizing an outsider’s perspective is referred to as self-objectification. Self-objectification can result in women and girls developing a specific type of self-consciousness characterized by habitual appearance monitoring. The incessant monitoring of one’s appearance can interfere with other cognitive processes as well as have a detrimental impact on mental health.

Self-objectification is also linked to other-objectification. In 2005 social psychologist Peter Strelan and psychologist Duane Hargreaves reasoned that people who self-objectify pay considerable attention to their appearance, and therefore are likely to also pay substantial attention to the appearance of others. Furthermore, they reasoned that because women are the primary targets of objectification, women are likely to believe that to be valued they must look good. Thus, women who are self-objectifiers, more so than men, should objectify others and view other human beings as objects to be evaluated on the basis of appearance. Conducting research to test their reasoning, the authors surveyed undergraduates and found that high levels of self-objectification in both men and women were associated with high levels of other-objectification. This relationship was stronger for women than for men.

Dress as Evidence of Sexual Objectification

Researchers have conducted content analyses of various stimuli (such as dolls and action figures, magazine advertisements, country music lyrics) to document the contribution of cultural artifacts to the sexual objectification of women within US culture. For example, Hope Boyd, a student, and Sarah Murnen, a social psychologist, in 2017 analyzed female dolls and male action figures from the websites of three national US stores. The majority of the dolls had thin bodies and were typically depicted wearing tight, revealing clothing and high-heeled shoes, characteristics linked with being presented as a sex object.

In 2011, two students, Samantha M. Goodin and Alyssa Van Denburg, with social psychologists Sarah K. Murnen and Linda Smolak, analyzed girls’ clothing from popular US websites for its sexualizing nature. Sexualizing clothing was operationalized as clothing that revealed or emphasized a sexualized body part (chest, buttocks, or legs, for example), had characteristics associated with sexiness (such as being made of a slinky material), or featured sexually suggestive wording (for example the word “juicy” located on the chest). They found substantial evidence of sexualization in girls’ clothing.

Working with students Kaitlin Graff and Anna Krause, Sarah Murnen analyzed advertisements in Seventeen and Girls’ Life magazine in 2013. Their interest was in documenting whether any change had occurred in sexualized characteristics present in images of girls. Sexualized characteristics included appearances that revealed, emphasized, or enhanced sexualized body parts (such as shirts or dresses emphasizing cleavage, tight clothing) or had characteristics associated with sexiness (like sexualized wording). These researchers analyzed over 2,000 images published between 1994 and 2011 and found that the number of sexualized characteristics had significantly increased over time in both magazines.

Investigating music videos in 2011, communication researchers Jennifer Aubrey and Cynthia Frisby also found evidence of sexual objectification. Such evidence included exposure of body parts (like cleavage, buttocks), gaze, use of revealing dress, and sexualized dance. As compared to male artists, female artists revealed more body parts, were more likely to wear revealing dress, and were more likely to engage in sexualized dance.

In 2017, communication and media researchers Eric Rasmussen and Rebecca Densley analyzed the lyrics of 671 country and western songs that made references to women for their objectifying content. They reported that over half of the songs contained objectifying content, which included making reference to women’s appearance (such as “looking good”) and to women wearing revealing dress (for example “She’s got them blue jeans painted on tight”).

The Role of Dress in Self-Objectification

There is much less research investigating other-objectification than self-objectification. Nevertheless, evidence that dress plays an important role in both self-objectification and in other-objectification comes from experimental research wherein revealing dress was used to successfully activate self-objectification and other-objectification.

Experimental researchers using objectification theory for guidance have evoked self-objectification in participants using dress manipulations. The typical process is as follows. Participants are asked to evaluate and put on a garment that is either revealing or non-revealing. While wearing the garment, participants complete measures of state self-objectification and may also complete other tasks. Differences in state self-objectification scores as a function of the dress condition demonstrate that wearing revealing dress elicits self-objectification.

In a seminal study published in 1998, psychologists Barbara Fredrickson, Tomi-Ann Roberts, Stephanie Noll, Diane Quinn, and Jean Twenge asked college students to evaluate and try on either a one-piece swimsuit or swim trunks (revealing dress condition) or a V-neck sweater (non-revealing dress condition) and evaluate the garment while in a dressing room with a full-length mirror. While still wearing the garment, participants completed measures of body shame, state self-objectification, and took a math test. Wearing body-revealing clothing as compared to wearing the non-revealing clothing, women, but not men, scored higher in state self-objectification and body shame and performed worse on the math test. This result supports objectification theory, which predicts that self-objectification in women leads to detriments in cognitive tasks. In 2004, psychologists Michelle Hebl, Eden King, and Jean Lin, using a similar experimental task, found similar self-objectification in both college men and women when they wore one-piece Speedo swimsuits in the revealing dress condition.

One does not need to wear revealing dress to self-objectify. In 2012, psychologists Marika Tiggemann and Rachel Andrew designed an experiment to assess the role of dress in women’s body experience. College women read scenarios and imagined themselves wearing revealing or non-revealing dress. As compared to when they imagined wearing non-revealing dress, women self-objectified when they imagined themselves wearing revealing dress.

Exposure to objectified media images can also evoke self-objectification. Communication researchers Jesse Fox, Jeremy Bailenson, and Liz Tricase, in 2013, published experimental research that focused on self-objectification after exposure to a virtual avatar. Female college students wore a head-mounted display that allowed them to see an avatar wearing revealing or non-revealing dress. Participants completed an experimental task and a measure of state self-objectification. Women exposed to the avatar wearing revealing dress had higher scores in self-objectification than women exposed to the avatar wearing non-revealing dress.

The Role of Dress in Other-Objectification

As previously noted, in 2005, Peter Strelan and Duane Hargreaves found that self-objectifiers also objectify others. In fact, they suggested that other-objectification precedes self-objectification. Since dress contributes to self-objectification, it is reasonable to expect that dress also influences other-objectification. However, scholars do not agree on how other-objectification is manifest.

In experimental other-objectification research, objectification is often assessed using trait ratings. Some researchers maintain that when people objectify others, they (the objectifiers) deny them certain traits including moral standing, mind, humanity, morality, human essence, self-respect, capability, and competence. In such studies, other-objectification is thought to occur if there are significant differences in ratings across experimental conditions. For the previously mentioned traits, low scores would be expected for objectified others. In contrast, other researchers use ratings of sexualizing traits, traits that suggest someone is viewed as a sexual object, to assess other-objectification. In these instances, researchers expect high scores for objectified others.

Research on Other-Objectification as a Function of Dress

In experimental research on other-objectification, researchers have presented participants with visual stimuli. The individuals presented in those stimuli are called stimulus persons. Dress used in this research is described using various terms (such as “provocative,” “a sexualized appearance,” “an objectified appearance”). What is typically manipulated is the revealing nature of the dress. Hence, the stimulus person (usually a woman or girl) is often depicted wearing revealing dress in one condition and wearing non-revealing dress in another. After viewing the stimulus person, participants use scales to indicate her characteristics. In such research, a researcher might predict that in the revealing dress condition, the stimulus person would be rated higher on sexualizing traits and lower on competence and human essence than the stimulus person in the non-revealing dress condition. Such differences in ratings are taken as evidence of other-objectification.

Research evidence on other-objectification has come from psychologists and dress researchers. In 2015, US psychologists John Nezlek, William Krohn, Dannon Wilson, and Laura Maruskin assessed the impact of viewing sexualized advertising images on objectification with undergraduates. In one condition, athletes were depicted in their athletic clothing and in another condition, the athletes were depicted wearing revealing dress. As compared to when dressed in athletic clothing, when wearing revealing dress the athletes were objectified, that is, attributed less competency and lower abilities but more sexualizing traits.

Dress researcher Sharron Lennon and graduate students Aziz Fatnassi and Zhiying Zheng (2016) also studied other-objectification. They investigated whether or not men and women objectified women wearing revealing Halloween costumes. In one condition, participants viewed and rated three female stimulus persons wearing revealing Halloween costumes; in a second condition, participants viewed and rated three female stimulus persons wearing non-revealing costumes. Women wearing revealing costumes were rated as more sexualized, less moral, and less self-respecting than women wearing non-revealing costumes. These results were interpreted as evidence of other-objectification.

Consequences of Other-Objectification as a Function of Dress

Psychologists have studied other-objectification in the context of sexual assault and the effects of such objectification on judgments of the survivor and perpetrator. In such studies, the researchers develop revealing and non-revealing dress conditions. They establish other-objectification by evaluating stimulus persons using rating scales (as previously described). Then participants read a scenario about an instance of sexual assault; included in that scenario is a depiction of the stimulus person in revealing or non-revealing dress. Then participants rate the survivor and perpetrator on various traits such as blameworthiness, suffering, and responsibility for the sexual assault. Typically, the stimulus person wearing revealing dress is attributed more blame and responsibility and less suffering than the stimulus person wearing non-revealing dress. The researchers argue that such biases have real-life consequences for both perpetrator sentencing and for survivor adjustment.

Psychologists from Australia, the UK, and Italy published research in 2013 that studied other-objectification and its effect on blame and suffering in the objectified other. Steve Loughnan, Afroditi Pina, Eduardo Vasquez, and Elisa Puvia designed an experiment with a revealing dress manipulation. The researchers established that the stimulus person, Laura, was objectified in the revealing dress condition but not in the non-revealing dress condition. Subsequently, participants saw a picture of Laura, read a vignette in which Laura was a sexual assault survivor, and assessed Laura’s blameworthiness and suffering. In the revealing dress condition, Laura was attributed more blame and less suffering than in the non-revealing dress condition.

In other research, published in 2015, psychologists from Belgium and the UK studied how objectification of a sexual assault survivor affected attributions about the perpetrator. Philippe Bernard, Steve Loughnan, Cynthie Marchal, Audrey Godart, and Olivier Klein first established that the survivor was objectified in the revealing dress condition. Less blame was attributed to the perpetrator when the survivor wore revealing dress compared to non-revealing dress. Both Bernard et al. and Loughnan et al. demonstrate how other-objectification biases interpretations of sexual violence. These biases could lead to lenient perpetrator sentencing and difficult survivor recoveries.


Dress is a key component of the appearance of an individual. Furthermore, the evaluation of one’s appearance by outsiders is a key component of the (self- and other-) objectification process. When individuals internalize an outsider’s view and value themselves primarily as objects, they self-objectify. Individuals who self-objectify are also likely to other-objectify due to the emphasis they place on their own as well as others’ appearance, appearances that include dress. Thus, dress is a key factor in the objectification process and although dress has seldom been acknowledged as a component, the role of dress should be acknowledged in both theorizing and operationalization of objectification.

References and Further Reading

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Find in Library Aubrey Jennifer, and Cynthia Frisby. ““Sexual Objectification in Music Videos: A Content Analysis Comparing Gender and Genre”.” Mass Communication and Society 14, no. 4 (2011): 475–501.

Awasthi Bhuvanesh. “From Attire to Assault: Clothing, Objectification, and Dehumanization–A Possible Prelude to Sexual Violence?Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017): 338.

Find in Library Bartky Lee. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenon of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Find in Library Bernard Philippe , Steve Loughnan, Cynthie Marchal, Audrey Godart, and Olivier Klein. ““The Exonerating Effect of Sexual Objectification: Sexual Objectification Decreases Rapist Blame in a Stranger Rape Context”.” Sex Roles 72, nos. 11–12 (2015): 499–508.

Boyd Hope, and Sarah Murnen. “Thin and Sexy vs. Muscular and Dominant: Prevalence of Gendered Body Ideals in Popular Dolls and Action Figures.” Body Image 21, (2017): 90–96.

Find in Library Budesheim Lee. ““Going Out on a Limb in an Underdeveloped Branch of Objectification Research”.” Sex Roles 65, nos. 3–4 (2011): 165–172.

Find in Library Calogero M., Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, and J. Kevin Thompson. Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2011.

Find in Library Fox Jesse, Jeremy N. Bailenson, and Liz Tricase. ““The Embodiment of Sexualized Virtual Selves: The Proteus Effect and Experiences of Self-Objectification Via Avatars”.” Computers in Human Behavior 29, no. 3 (2013): 930–938.

Find in Library Fredrickson L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts. ““Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks”.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 21, no. 2 (1997): 173–206.

Find in Library Fredrickson L., Tomi-Ann Roberts, Stephanie M. Noll, Diane M. Quinn, and Jean M. Twenge. ““That Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Differences in Self-Objectification, Restrained Eating, and Math Performance”.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no. 1 (1998): 269–284.

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