For something intangible, a glance can be a powerful thing. It can carry the weight of culture and history, it can cause psychological harm, and it can act as a muzzle. Consider the relatively simple act of a man staring at a woman’s body. This is such a common part of modern society that most of us rarely stop to think of its consequences, much less investigate it with a scientific lens.
Tamar Saguy is different. Leading a team of Israeli and US psychologists, she has shown that women become more silent if they think that men are focusing on their bodies. They showed that women who were asked to introduce themselves to an anonymous male partner spent far less time talking about themselves if they believed that their bodies were being checked out. Men had no such problem. Nor, for that matter, did women if they thought they were being inspected by another woman.
Saguy’s study is one of the first to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification – the act of treating people as “de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities”. It targets women more often than men. It’s apparent in magazine covers showing a woman in a sexually enticing pose, in inappropriate comments about a colleague’s appearance, and in unsolicited looks at body parts. These looks were what Saguy focused on.