Trio of Terror (Pregnancy, Menstruation, and Breastfeeding): An Existential Function of Literal Self-Objectification Among Women

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Abstract

Research and theorizing suggest that objectification entails perceiving a person not as a human being but, quite literally, as an object. However, the motive to regard the self as an object is not well understood. The current research tested the hypothesis that literal self-objectification can serve a terror management function. From this perspective, the female body poses a unique existential threat on account of its role in reproduction, and regarding the self as an object is posited to shield women from this threat because objects, in contrast to humans, are not mortal. Across 5 studies, 3 operationalizations of literal self-objectification were employed (a denial of essentially human traits to the self, overlap in the explicit assignment of traits to the self and objects, and implicit associations between self and objects using an implicit association test) in response to 3 aspects of women's bodies involved in reproduction (pregnancy, menstruation, and breastfeeding). In each study, priming mortality led women (but not men, included in Studies 1, 3, 4, and 5) to literally self-objectify in conditions where women's reproductive features were salient. In addition, literal self-objectification was found to mediate subsequent responsiveness to death-related stimuli (Study 4). Together, these findings are the first to demonstrate a direct link between mortality salience, women's role in reproduction, and their self-objectification, supporting an existential function of self-objectification in women.

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