Wonder Woman is everywhere. For the first time in film history, a woman is the main hero in a big-budget movie that was also directed by a woman. But despite this milestone, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the messages surrounding the film are conflicting and contradictory.
Before the film began production, there was a public outcry that the character was portrayed by a woman with a smaller-than-expected décolletage. And no one questioned why she needed to be clothed in a dangerously skin-tight bathing suit in the first place. I say “dangerously” because actress Gal Gadot admitted that she almost fainted while trying it on.
Of course, we all know why Wonder Woman needs to be wearing a revealing, body-hugging suit. It is the same reason that women, particularly younger ones, feel enormous pressure to be regarded as beautiful and sexually appealing, in addition to being perfect in every other way. I once related to this debilitating pressure: inordinately preoccupied with my appearance, caring deeply about how the opposite gender perceived me.
What finally freed me from the obsessiveness with how random guys regarded me was my transformation via becoming an observant Jew. I learned Jewish laws surrounding modesty, a concept known as tznius, and incorporated them into my life. Jewish laws of modesty encourage women (and men) to dress modestly. But tznius is much more than just dressing a certain way. It is a comprehensive guide for one’s overall behavior and speech, encouraging the development of a richer inner world and a more internal self-definition.
After years of dressing modestly, I noticed how I became less preoccupied with what others thought of my physical attractiveness. This did not change my commitment to dressing with style, but it became more about projecting polish, authority and competence, as opposed to sexiness. However, as a lobbyist with a graduate degree in public policy, I can’t rely just on anecdotes or subjective emotions. I ventured to see if there is any data and empirical evidence that would explain this phenomenon to me. What I found blew me away.
Studies show that most people settle on all sorts of perceptions about strangers, from status to intelligence to promiscuity, based on quick inferences known as “thin-slicing.” For women trying to break glass ceilings, build relationships, and prove that they can handle any challenge, being “thin-sliced” strategically is of utmost importance. But many inadvertently undermine themselves by implementing a sartorial strategy that sexualizes them instead of bolstering their position and commanding respect.
Research shows that a man’s neurology leads him to objectify women dressed in revealing attire. In a 2009 study conducted at Princeton University, brain scans revealed that when men were shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tool “use” lighted up — in other words, they saw them as objects. Furthermore, men were also significantly more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as “I push,” “I grasp” and “I handle.” Some men showed no activity in the part of the brain that processes another person’s intentions and feelings. When men viewed women as sexually inviting, they didn’t contemplate anything about their mind and feelings. Lead researcher Susan Fiske noted that “the lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.”
Another study, published in 2011 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reveals that this kind of objectification may also transform men’s perception of women’s minds. Prior research has established that people categorize others through the lens of either “agency,” the ability to formulate and execute plans, or “experience,” the ability to feel emotions. According to this study, when heterosexual men viewed female flesh uncovered by clothing, they categorized the women as “experience” — meaning that they disregarded their ability for action, implementation and anything requiring a higher order of thinking. The study also varied the amount of flesh shown in the pictures. Predictably, when men saw full bodies as opposed to faces, the ratings of “agency” diminished and the ratings of “experience” increased.
Of course, one could argue that even if it is true that men objectify and disregard women who are dressed revealingly, it shouldn’t matter, as some women claim that they dress solely for themselves, with no care as to how others may perceive them. Fascinatingly, research reveals that despite these protests, the way others view us actually does have an impact on our own self-perception and self-esteem.
Objectification Theory, pioneered by psychologists Barbara L. Fredrickson of the University of Michigan and Tomi-Ann Roberts of Colorado College, postulates that women who are sexually objectified are likely to experience mental health problems such as eating disorders, depression and sexual dysfunction, among other illnesses that disproportionally affect women. According to Fredrickson and Roberts, women internalize the views of outsiders, and begin to self-objectify by treating themselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated on the basis of appearance, prioritizing the superficial rather than their competence-based attributes.
In a 1998 study called “The Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Differences in Self-Objectification, Restrained Eating, and Math Performance,” Fredrickson found that what a women wears has a direct impact on her performance. Researchers put female and male undergraduates in dressing rooms with a mirror, garbed in either swimsuits or sweaters. The students were instructed to try on the assigned clothing and wear it for a while before filling out a sham evaluation of the apparel. While they waited, the participants were asked to complete a math test, supposedly for colleagues “in the department of education.” The students were alone in the dressing rooms, yet the women in bathing suits scored far lower on the math test than the women in sweaters. The men performed the same regardless of what they wore.
To confirm that they were detecting a detrimental effect of wearing a bathing suit, and not anxieties about math, researchers ran a second study. This time, instead of math questions, they tested the ability to pay attention and stay focused. Once again, they found that women wearing swimsuits scored lower than women wearing sweaters. In short, when young women are prompted to reflect on their physical appearance, they seem to lose intellectual focus.
Separate studies led by Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University also showed that clothing has an impact on cognition. One study revealed that when subjects wore a white coat that they believed belonged to a doctor, their ability to pay attention increased sharply. In other words, as The New York Times explained, “clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.”
Clothing has an incredible ability to convey confidence, authority and power. The sooner we recognize this and understand the science behind how we are perceived, the sooner we could start to strategically position ourselves to achieve our goals. It is not a coincidence that when Angelina Jolie sought to communicate her new role as a director as opposed to merely a sexy actress, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair wearing a strategically modest white blouse. The message was clear, and The Times’ style correspondent picked it up: Jolie wanted to be taken seriously as a director and U.N. goodwill ambassador, and wasn’t interested in being regarded as merely a sexy starlet. Similarly, when TV journalist Megyn Kelly — no stranger to provocative clothing in the past — interviewed Vladimir Putin, she wore a completely body-covering outfit. She sent the message that she was not there to be someone’s eye candy, but to grill an autocratic ruler on his despotic policies.
The reality is that all of us, whether we like it or not, engage in sartorial diplomacy on a regular basis. Wearing clothing that emphasizes qualities that are revealing of our character, intellect, sense of humor and personality, as opposed to our body parts, can inspire us to be inwardly focused and drive us to continuously cultivate and enrich ourselves in the way that matters most.
Sarah Felsenthal is a government advocacy and business development consultant to numerous organizations, and has years of experience as a lobbyist responsible for millions of dollars in government funding.