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68 undergraduate female students from a mid-sized state college were recruited through a research participation pool (PIPER) to examine the effects of menstrual taboo on feminist identity and self-objectification. Feminist identity was assessed through a scale referencing the cardinal beliefs of feminists as well as accepting the label of a feminist. Self-objectification was assessed through a scale measuring Body Shame, Body Surveillance, and Appearance Control Beliefs. Although we had a lot of participants accept the cardinal beliefs of a feminist and accept the label there was no significant effect of feminist identity on self-objectification, meaning those who coincided with feminist core beliefs were not less likely to self-objectify due to menstrual taboo. Past literature suggests that feminist identity can contradict taboos against women. Many studies have used similar aged female participants although many previous studies have not examined the effects of menstruation taboo on feminist identity and self-objectification on women. Future research may consider conducting this experiment over a larger population to provide more diversity in the results.
How Feminists View Menstrual Taboo Messages
Why is a natural aspect of women’s lives assumed to be socially unacceptable? Menstruation is a natural bodily function experienced by many women but for some reason it is constantly tabooed and associated with negative presumptions. Everyday women are faced with this trauma and are ultimately forced to mask an important part of the female identity. Although it should be viewed as a natural and positive experience, society often criticizes it leading to form negative stigmas around the experience which causes women to self-objectify. Unfortunately this seems to be the case world wide, where not only one society is demonizing menstruation but a high majority are. To contradict this idea, there are women who identify as feminists to challenge these taboo ideas associated with menstruation. Due to this, are women who identify as feminists less likely to self-objectify in reference to menstruation?
Menstruation is often hidden from everyone although it is a natural part of female life both socially and culturally. Women hide menstration physically but also refrain from speaking about it. This tends to be an unwanted topic of conversation because of the uneasiness and disgust it causes many people. These underlying factors cause the topic to be something that is rarely spoken about. The taboo associated with menstruation is more prominent and vigorous than any other taboo linked to other bodily functions experienced by either sex (Roberts and Waters, 2004). Across various societies menstruation is seen as a contaminated process. Often when women are menstruating they are looked at with disgrace. Similarly to if one was engaging in something that was toxic to the rest of society. Both men and women perceive menstruating women in this manner. In some regions of the country women are considered to be unclean during their time menstruating. In specific cases, women are unable to take part in daily activities because they are menstruating.
Throughout our society there is a common lack of knowledge about menstruation. There are also a lack of resources needed for proper hygiene during times of menstruation. These factors lead to a lack of understanding about what the menstruation process actually is. Fear is developed over the topic of menstruation because of the various misconceptions that surround it. Advertisements and commercials are greatly impacted by the high levels of fear and stigma attached to the menstruation. This causes them to lack anything relevant to real life experiences and often encourage secrecy around menstruating. Ways this is conveyed include, emphasizing no leakage and using liquids that aren’t red to display blood. With all these social media influences, there is a consistent level of menstruation taboo because people are being exposed and primed to think that menstruation should be kept secret and they are often led to believe the opposite of what real life women experience during menstruation. The taboo around menstruation continues due to the absense of education, realistic promotion and resources. This leads the level of secrecy to rise around menstruation. This supports the face that in numerous societies around the world, menstruation is expected to be dealt with in silence emphasizing the fact that is it socially unacceptable.
Research indicates that these menstrual taboos have negative effects on women, specifically their likelihood to self-objectify. One article looked into the menstrual knowledge and taboo advertisements and their effects on self-objectification. The researchers found that the lower level of menstrual knowledge a woman had the more likely they were to self objectify. They also found that women with negative attitudes toward menstruation were more likely to self objectify than those with positive attitudes (Spadaro et al. 2017). In this study, researchers examined the influence of exposing women to commercials that demonstrated menstruation taboo on self-objectification. They moderated the level of menstrual knowledge in this study. They found their to be cultural differences between Italian and Swedish participants. Italian women were more likely to self-objectify after being exposed to the ads were swedish women were not as likely to self-objectify after being exposed to the advertisements.
The taboos surrounding menstruation can fortunately be contradicted by women who support feminist beliefs. One study on this topic looked into forming a better understanding of the relationship between feminist identification and sexuality by analyzing the attitudes of feminist egalitarian and non feminist women. Researchers also found that feminists were significantly more erotophilic than egalitarians and non feminists (Bay-Cheng & Zucker,2007). Interpreting this would suggest that feminists commonly have more positive feedback toward sexual stimuli and they are less likely to support traditional sexual double standards. The findings of this study suggest that feminists do have counteracting beliefs with standard values. Furthermore, feminists responses to sexual stimuli could directly impact their responses to the way menstruation is portrayed in the media.
Another study examined the relationship between feminism and various clinical outcomes regarding several variables where participants responded to an online survey measuring feminist self-identification, conformity to feminine norms, objectified body consciousness, etc. Through their study they concluded that feminist identity was negatively correlated with body shame and surveillance skills from the OBCS (Hurt et al., 2007). This study broke self-objectification down into two components; body same and surveillance skills. An important finding from this study included that rejecting certain feminine norms may decrease the amount one self-objectifies. This directly relates to why we chose feminist identity as our moderator for self-objectification when individuals are exposed to taboo versus non-taboo commercials. This resource assesses the variables which try to link the gap between feminist identity and self-objectification. This article highlights feminist identity along with feminist core beliefs.
Myers & Crowther, 2007 analyzed how feminist identity could be a moderating factor sociocultural pressures, thin-ideal internalization, self-objectification and body dissatisfaction. Similar to our study feminist beliefs were used as the moderator but it this study feminist beliefs were used to moderate the relationship between sociocultural pressures on thin-ideal and body dissatisfaction. 195 female undergraduates completed self-report measures assessing socio cultural influences, feminist beliefs, thin-ideal internalization, self-objectification and body dissatisfaction (Myers & Crowther, 2007). The findings of this study are relevant because feminist beliefs did have a moderating effect on the relationship between media awareness and thin-ideal internalization. It was hypothesized that feminist identity can impact the way women view advertisements causing them to be less likely to self-objectify which is supported by the findings in the study completed by Myers & Crowther, 2007).
Feminist identity can be looked at as a powerful resource contrasting the negative stereotypes and stigmas surrounding women. Sabik & Tylka, 2006, specifically looked into feminist identify and its effect against sexist events toward distorted eating. Using hierarchical moderated regression, the study found two types of feminist identity; synthesis and active commitment (Sabik & Tylka, 2006). These two out of the five feminist identity styles they evaluated were the only ones that affected the relationship between disordered eating and assumed sexist events. The results found that non-feminist women were impacted greater by sexist events than feminist women, meaning non-feminist women receied more psychological distress when faced with sexist events. This is helpful because feminist consciousness were proven to be a unique factor that could weaken the relationship between sexist events and psychological distress.
In order to clarify and advance the findings of previous studies, we will measure Feminist Identity using the Feminist Beliefs and Behavior scale (Zucker, 2004). The scale contains three items about the cardinal beliefs of feminists answered in a yes/no format followed by one dichotomous question to access the participants’ willingness to identify as a feminist. Examples of items include, “Girls and women have not been treated as well as boys and men in our society” and “Women and men should be paid equally for the same work”. Participants will answer to each item in a dichotomous, yes/no format. Based on previous research, we expect out hypothesis, “Women who identify themselves as feminists or have core beliefs of feminists will be less likely to self-objectify due to menstrual taboo” to be true. Every movement made by feminist is to express their confidence and acceptance of oneself. In doing so the disdain and taboos of menstruation will shift, creating confidence in all woman to be able to talk about periods without feeling embarrassed. Each survey has evidence that shows the forward thinking and beliefs over non feminist woman when it comes to sex, menstruation and body confidence. Finally, we will be being using a sample of about 68 females from a PIPER pool at The College of New Jersey. Many studies have used similar aged female participants so it will be interesting to compare our results to prior research. There are not too many previous studies that examine the effects of menstruation taboo on feminist identity and self-objectification on women.
Therefore, this study will clarify how these three variables influence each other in the female population at The College of New Jersey.
The sample consisted of about 400 female undergraduate students from The College of New Jersey (M= 19.86 years, SD= 1.251, range = 18-23) who were selected through the PIPER pool to participate in research. Participants must be 18 years old and female to participate in this study, if they do not meet this criterion they will not be allowed to participant in the study. Participants’ ethnic background were 70.6% White European American, 11.8% Asian, 0% Native American or Pacific Islander, 7.4% African American, and 0% American Indian or Alaska Native; also 2.9% reported other ethnicity. With regards to year in college, 6 identified as seniors, 17 as juniors, 18 as sophomores and 27 as freshman. All participants received one piper credit for participation lasting up to 30 minutes.
We used advertisements to manipulate the independent variable, taboo messages. Participants were shown two different advertisements, all participants saw the water bottle advertisement and then participants saw one of the two menstrual product advertisements. A water bottle advertisement was viewed by participants followed by two randomly assigned tampon advertisements. The purpose of the water bottle advertisement was to avoid deception as the study was listed as an health advertisements on PIPER, the water bottle served as a more neutral advertisement before viewing those concerning menstruation. One of which was a taboo message involving menstruation and one in which was non-taboo. The non-taboo advertisement clearly showed an African American woman and Caucasian man taking sheets off a bed. On the sheets is a large menstrual blood stain. This ads heading was “No Shame” printed boldly at the top center of the page and the caption at the bottom of the ad stated, “Periods are nothing to be ashamed of. They’re natural and period products should be natural too. The taboo advertisement, showed a caucasian man in front of a large bed captioned, “Mother nature please, the room is already paid for”. The bottom smaller caption stated, “Our best wishes for Valentines Day”. Both advertisements were for tampon products and referred to menstruation in different ways, either accepting or rejecting it. Taboo messages were known to provoke prohibiting and restricted attitudes toward menstruation. Taboo messages led to increased state self-objectification for Italian women (Spadaro et al. 2017). After being exposed to a taboo message, those with low menstrual knowledge were more likely to self-objectify than those with higher menstrual knowledge. After viewing advertisements participants were asked to evaluate them with a series of questions that included, “What product is being advertised?” which was answered with a written response. “How likely are you to purchase this product?” which answers ranged from extremely likely to extremely unlikely. “How would you rate the quality of this product?” with answers ranging from terrible to excellent. “How positive or negative is the message the advertisement conveys?” with answers ranging from extremely negative to extremely positive. “How useful is this product?” with answers ranging from not useful at all to extremely useful.
Self-objectification is when girls internalize an objectifying observer’s perspective on their own bodies causing them to have negative feelings and thoughts about themselves. Self-objectification was determined based on the scores participants obtained from the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale. This scale consisted of a 24-item self-report questionnaire composed of three subscales and eight items each, measuring Body Shame, Body Surveillance, and Appearance Control Beliefs. All items were rated on a 7-point Likert scale from 1(strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). An example of items asked would include, “I am not thinking about how I look right now” and “Right now, I really don’t think I have much control over how my body looks”. Higher scores received through the questionnaire indicated more state self-objectification. Both Italy (Dakanalis et al. 2015) and Sweden (Lexner 2009) have previous studies that have shown support for the reliability and validity of OBCS.
Knowledge of menstruation which was the moderator variable for the study, was assessed using five items from the Knowledge of Menstruation questionnaire. Each item is a true-false statement about menstruation. The five items include, “ Changes in a girl’s routine such as going on holidays can cause changes in her menstrual cycle”(T); “It is dangerous for a girl to go swimming when she is having her period”(F); “Female athletes in heavy training and ballet dancers sometimes stop menstruating” (T); B”Menstruation (periods) cleans the body of dirty blood”(F); “Periods help to flush out an egg every month”(F). For scoring purposes, all correct answers were added together. Higher scores indicated more accurate knowledge concerning menstruation, scores range from 0-5.
People who identify as feminist share a sense of community that accompanies a social movement, which “encompasses those who see gender as a major category of analysis, who critique female disadvantage, and who work to improve women’s situation” (Rupp & Taylor, 1999, p. 364). Whether or not a participants accept the label of being a feminist and/or hold feminist beliefs was assessed through the Feminist Beliefs and Behavior scale (Zucker, 2004). The measure regarding cardinal beliefs of feminists was created to determine participants’ compliance with with the basic feminist principle being, equality between sexes. The scale contains three items about the cardinal beliefs of feminists answered in a dichotomous yes/no format followed by one question to access the participants’ willingness to identify as a feminist. The three items include, “ Girls and women have not been treated as well as boys and men in our society,” “Women and men should be paid equally for the same work,” and “Women’s unpaid work should be more socially valued”. X women, rejected all three beliefs, X women endorsed one belief, X endorsed two beliefs and X endorsed all three beliefs. To conclude , participants answer the question, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” once again in a yes or no format either accepting the label of a feminist or not accepting the label of a feminist. Women were considered feminists if they endorsed all three of the cardinal beliefs and accepted the label of a feminist. Women were considered egalitarians if they endorsed all three cardinal beliefs of feminists but answered no to accepting the label of a feminist. Women were considered non-feminists if they rejected at least one cardinal belief as well as the label of a feminist.
This study is a survey conducted at The College of New Jersey, where a sample of female college students were recruited through the PIPER pool to participate. Participants were tested on their attitudes towards menstrual taboo advertisements. The dependent variable is self-objectification.
When participants arrived to the designated computer lab, they signed their name on the sign-in sheet and sat down at a computer to begin the survey. There was about 15 participants taking the survey in the lab along with two researchers present throughout each session.
To begin, all participants were asked to sign an informed consent form, which advised them that the study was being used to test their health beliefs. This form recognized all exclusion criterion, potential risks and benefits, and the purposes of the study. The study was administered in a TCNJ research lab and did not take longer than 30 minutes to complete.
Next, a water bottle advertisement was viewed by participants followed by two randomly assigned tampon advertisements. All advertisements and messages were viewed in the same language, English. After viewing the advertisements, initial reactions of participants were assessed through series questions.
Lastly, a separate survey that asked questions about individuals beliefs about their bodies and their health was completed.Participants began answering questions about the moderator being examined. To assess the moderators, participants completed questions on self-objectification, menstrual knowledge, and feminist identification. Additional moderators that will be tested throughout the study include self-esteem, body-image and openness to menstruation.Upon completion of the survey, participants were debriefed regarding the study. They were then aware that the purpose is to understand the personal factors that can influence women to view menstruation negatively which would ultimately lead women to self-objectify.
Due to failure of attention checks, three participants’ responses were excluded from analyses, resulting in a final sample size of 68. Participants’ mean self-objectification scores ranged from 2.71 – 5.63 (M = 4.02, SD = .66). There were no significant differences in self- objectification by condition (F > 0.05). Participants’ mean menstrual knowledge scores ranged from 0.80 (M = 0.7164, SD = 1.4418). There were no significant differences in menstrual knowledge by condition (F>0.05). Participants’ attitudes toward mean menstruation scores ranged from 4.13 (M = 4.01, SD = .7075). For this variable, Cronbach’s alpha was greater than 0.7 ( α = .752), and thus reliable. There were no significant differences in attitudes toward menstruation by condition (F>0.05).. Descriptive statistics among all variables included in the study are shown in Table 1. At the bivariate level, it was found that women who displayed greater state self-objectification had more negative attitudes toward menstruation. The frequencies and percentages for scores on the feminist identity measures are presented in Table 2.
A multivariate linear regression was conducted to examine the extent to which menstrual knowledge, taboo messages, and attitudes toward menstruation predict state self-objectification (see Table 3). Also, to test the moderating effect of knowledge on the relationship between taboo messages and self-objectification. The model accounted for 3.8% of the variance in self-objectification, F(3, 60) = 1.832, p >.005 . Significant predictors were attitudes toward menstruation. Those who had negative attitudes toward menstruation were significantly more likely to self-objectify than those who had positive attitudes toward menstruation, β = 0.285, t = 2.245, p = .029. In addition, those who reported higher levels of menstrual knowledge did not have a significant effect on self-objectification, β = -.024, t = -0.192, p = .849. The type of message that was shown (taboo vs non-taboo) did not have a significant effect on self-objectification, β = .012, t = .095, p = .925. Finally, we tested the interaction between condition and menstrual knowledge on and adding the interaction effect did not significantly improve the variance accounted for. Thus, there was not moderating effect which was inconsistent with our hypothesis.
We then examined whether women who are feminists will be less likely to self-objectify due to menstrual taboo than women who are egalitarians and non-feminists by conducting a 2(condition) X 3(feminist identity) factorial ANOVA to examine the effects on self-objectification (see Table 4). Condition included two levels (taboo [N=33] vs non taboo [N=35]) and feminist identity consisted of three levels (feminist, egalitarian, and non-feminist). The ANOVA revealed that there was no main effect of condition on self-objectification , F(1,65) = .104, p = .749, suggesting that women who were in the taboo condition (M = 4.045, SD = .138) did not differ in state-self objectification in comparison to the non-taboo condition (M = 3.981, SD = .143). The ANOVA revealed that there was no main effect of feminist identity on self-objectification, F(2,65) = .487, p = .617, suggesting that non-feminists (M = 4.161, SD = .204), egalitarians (M = 3.888, SD = .192) and feminists (M = 3.990, SD = .105) did not differ on self-objectification. There was also no significant interaction between the two factors, F(1,65) = .525, p = .757. The nature of this interaction suggested that for non-feminists , taboo messages (M = 4.183, SD = .301) versus non-taboo messages (M = 4.139, SD = .275) did not have an effect on self-objectification. For egalitarians, taboo messages (M = 4.068, SD = .238 ) versus non taboo messages (M = 3.708, SD = .301) did not have an effect on self-objectification. For feminists, taboo messages (M = 3.884, SD = .159) versus non-taboo messages (M = 4.095, SD = .137) similarly did not have an effect on self-objectification.
Table 1. Descriptive statistics and correlations among study variables
Table 2. Frequencies and Percentages for Feminist Identity Moderator.
Note. Evaluation 1: Girls and women have not been treated as well as boys and men in our society; Evaluation 2: Women and men should be paid equally for the same work; Evaluation 3: Women’s unpaid work should be more socially valued; Feminist ID: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Table 3. Multivariate Regression for condition, attitudes toward menstruation and menstrual knowledge on self-objectification
Table 4. Means and Standard Deviations for Dependent Variable Self-Objectification.
Researchers have question what impacts women’s likelihood to self-objectify in relation to menstruation, the present study looked into the following moderators; attitudes toward menstruation, menstrual knowledge and feminist identity. We accounted for differences between the conditions resulting it assuming that women with negative attitudes toward menstruation would be more likely to self-objectify. Another hypothesis we had was that, women with more menstrual knowledge will be less likely to self-objectify due to menstrual taboo than women with less menstrual knowledge. We found these results to be non-significant. Lastly, we hypothesized that, women who are feminists will be less likely to self-objectify specifically, in our study when viewing menstrual advertisements than women who are egalitarians and non-feminists. We found this hypothesis to also be nonsignificant. Due to most of our hypotheses being deemed non-significant we can infer that the attitudes toward menstruation, menstrual knowledge and feminist identity have little/no impact on taboo messages and self-objectification.
The results of this study contrasts the assertions of Hurt (2007) that feminist identity was significantly negatively correlated with self-objectification. Previous research shows that conforming to feminist norms makes one less likely to self objectify, however the rejection of certain feminist norms may decrease the extent to which one self-objectifies. Our study found no significance between feminist identity and self-objectification but in comparison to Hurt (2007), this could have been because our studies sample size was substantially smaller. Hurt (2007) had 282 female participants versus our 68 female participants.
This study supports the findings of Spadaro (2017), which supports the findings in our study that attitudes toward menstruation is significantly associated with self-objectification. Although Spadaro (2017), used a very different sample then this study being Swedish and Italian participants researchers found women with negative attitudes toward menstruation were more likely to self-objectify. Moreover, this study indirectly states that the less menstrual knowledge one had the more likely they were to self-objectify. This contradicts our findings that menstrual knowledge had no significant impact on self-objectification.
Our sample size was smaller impacting the chance that participants could have had very similar characteristics leaving them to have similar opinions and views on menstruation affecting our results greatly due to our very small sample size. These findings do however show that the small female population from a smaller college can in fact have high levels of menstrual knowledge and accept the feminist label but still have negative attitudes toward menstruation.
Among the strengths of our study was that, the sample population was easily accessible. We recruited our participants through the PIPER pool at TCNJ which is only includes TCNJ students. Since our study took place on TCNJ’s campus, the students of this college were easily accessible as the location was familiar and in short distance from where they live on or off campus. Our study was time effective in that it took no longer than thirty minutes to complete the survey. Similarly, our study was cost effective because we used Qualtrics to create and conduct our surveys. Due to this, there was no need to purchase any other materials. All in all, this helps make our study easy to replicate because future researchers would not have to spend an excessive amount of time, money, or other resources to obtain results expected.
Another strength of our study was the use of the water bottle advertisement in terms of deception. The use of the water bottle was to relate back to what participants signed up for when they agreed to take part in the study. The study told participants that they would be taking a survey based on Health Advertisements, when they signed up through PIPER. In order to provide more than just articles related to menstruation we provided an article referencing a water bottle because this also is health related. Participants answered the same questions for the water bottle advertisement and the menstruation advertisements providing consistency throughout our survey.
Some limitations must be considered in the interpretation of our results. To begin, the choice of our advertisements used as experimental stimuli to test the non-taboo and taboo conditions. Although we tried to select an advertisement that depicted menstruation as taboo, the specific one we had chosen addressed the topic indirectly. With this being said, the advertisement never specifically mentioned menstruation. On the other hand, the non-taboo advertisement we had used did not explicitly state non-taboo words like “blood” although it did show an image of red blood on white sheets. The advertisement instead was limited to mention how “periods are natural” and with the use of the companies organic tampons periods can be easier. The article did emphasize non-taboo phrases such as, “No Shame”. The advertisements chosen could have affected the nonsignificant results on whether or not the type of message shown (taboo vs. non-taboo) affected self-objectification.
Another obvious limitation of this study was the sample size. With the limited amount of time we had to collect our data we were faced with an lack of participants, leaving us with only 68 participants to interpret results for. Being that the sample size was already very low the lack of diversity within our sample could have also affected the differentiation within our results. The sample of participants were all females ranging from ages 18 to 23, who were predominately white and all were undergraduate students at the College of New Jersey. With all of this taken into consideration, the prestigious university provides students with a very in depth education, leaving students very well-versed and knowledgeable. This could have affected specific moderators specifically, menstrual knowledge. Along with this idea, TCNJ is provides many opportunities for feminists to express themselves and even has a women and gender studies major for anyone who is passionate about learning further about feminist topics. This could have aided to the fact that our results had shown that the majority of our participants accepted the feminist label and agreed with the three cardinal beliefs of a feminist. Due to the threats of internal validity our selection bias could have impacted our results heavily, being that participants were very similar in age, race, and knowledge background.
Our last limitation is that our sample did used we a convenience sample. All of our participants were gathered through the TCNJ PIPER database. With this being said, all of the students who participated in our study are current TCNJ students. Therefore, our sample is not representative across all undergraduate college campuses. We also limited our sample to a selection bias of only allowing participants who were females to complete the survey. This could have served as a threat to external validity because of the lack of variety within our sample.
Although many of the studies hypothesis received limited support, we did find significant effects on attitudes toward menstruation and self-objectification. This reminds us that feminist identity and menstrual knowledge may not be efficient measures in examining what causes women to self-objectify. This may have changed if the study was conducted for a longer period of time over a much broader population. The results could have been impacted greatly by a larger sample size over the domain of various universities. With a larger sample, there would have been a greater chance of having more diversity within the participants as they would have accounted for more racial differences, a variety of ages and different backgrounds of education.
In continuation, the method could have been altered by adding different or more advertisements to ensure understanding of what was being studied; menstruation. If advertisements were more explicit and straightforward maybe participants would have a higher tendency to self-objectify being they were well-aware of the what the advertisement was portraying. Perhaps, the most important lesson to be learned from this study is that attitudes toward menstruation have a significant impact on self-objectification. People who have negative attitudes toward menstruation are more likely to self-objectify than those with positive attitudes toward menstruation.
When examining the results of this study, researchers still question why menstrual knowledge, type of message and feminist identity did not have a significant influence on self-objectification. In order to answer this question, other researchers can individually analyze menstrual knowledge, type of message and feminist identity in regards to self-objectification and include more items from each measure, as well as a larger sample size. Additional research conducted on other factors that may be involved in self-objectification, such as parental influence, may help to further the understanding of how likely women are to self-objectify.
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