Imagine, for a moment, the suntanned, scantily clad masses on the beach on a hot day. You’ve got to admit: It’s hard not to gawk. While it might seem obvious that their near-nudity might get people aroused, new research on the triggers for automatic sexual objectification suggests that it isn’t just the sight of skin that turns us into voracious oglers of the human body. As the Université Libre de Bruxelles researchers write, it might actually all be in the pose.
People tend to pose differently when they’re not wearing a lot of clothing, the team writes in their new Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study. In turn, those poses make a big difference when it comes to how people objectify them. The study suggests that in those moments we become automatically aroused by a nearly nude person, we might actually be aroused by that nearly nude person’s sexually suggestive pose.
Looking for a more scientific approach to measuring the point when people stop seeing one another as humans and start seeing each other as objects — sort of how one might feel while looking around at the beach — researchers previously narrowed in on a “brain wave” called N170, first identified by a team in Israel in 1996. This team showed that when people see collections as “face parts” (they use eyelids as an example), N170 waves tend to spike negatively. Since then, research, led by psychologist Philippe Bernard, Ph.D., who co-authored the new study, has shown that N170 waves also spike when people view “sexualized” photos, suggesting that the way someone looks can trigger brain activity that makes others seen them as a “collection of parts.”
“N170 amplitudes can be modulated by body sexualization,” Bernard tells Inverse. “In other words, this suggests that larger N170s are found as a function of higher body sexualization, which can be interpreted as reflecting some sort of arousal.”
But what really constitutes sexualization?
In the new study, Bernard and his colleagues measured the brainwaves of participants as they looked at photos of people of different genders, races, and ages in various states of undress and in a range of poses. He noticed that in most of the photos that caused a spike in N170 waves, the models weren’t just standing around with no clothes on. They also contorted their bodies into “suggestive postures,” which this team thought might be the real reason for the spike in N170 activity.
To study this, the team began by showing 22 participants photos of models people wearing increasingly less clothing in what they describe as “neutral” poses and measuring their N170 activity. Unsurprisingly, their study replicated the findings of the ones before it: less clothing translated to greater spikes in the N170 “objectification” wave. But by looking at the brainwaves associated with the photos in which models assumed sexier poses, the team stumbled on something new. Not only did the pose changes also cause spikes in N170 activity in the 22 participants, but the spikes themselves were larger.
“For posture suggestiveness, we found larger N170s for suggestive postures vs. non-suggestive postures, indicating that posture suggestiveness akin to revealing clothing is arousing,” he says.
This, the authors note, is a pretty surprising finding for researchers studying sexual objectification, a field has long been hyper-focused on the skin-to-clothing ratio. An analysis of the study in BPS Research Digest brings up an interesting point about the observations: While there’s no denying that nudity can be arousing, sometimes nudity is not meant to be sexy, and so it makes sense that, as viewers, we might not automatically objectify people who show some skin. It’s different, of course, when a nude person intends to be sexy and strikes a provocative pose and we become aroused. That can be seen as a natural response to an invitation.
A persistent issue in modern society is that so many people, especially women, are automatically sexually objectified and treated differently as a result. There’s no excuse for this, neurological or otherwise, but until humans figure out how to never treat each other like pieces of meat, studies like this one can help us be more mindful of how we behave — and how we respond to the behavior of other people.
The authors note that these findings have implications for everyday citizens as well as advertisers or clothing manufactures who might want to avoid sexualizing their centerfolds. “Although suggestive postures and revealing clothing often go hand-in-hand,” they write, “it may be possible to decouple these elements in the media and in personal interactions.”