Objectified: A Push For Higher Education To Help Reduce Objectification Among Women, Girls

Oct 18, 2016

Six years ago, Dr. Susan Madsen and a team of researchers released data gathered to determine the value of higher education for Utah women.

The study was commissioned by the Utah System of Higher Education as part of a Utah Women and Education Project because the number of Utah women enrolling in college was far below the national average.  Nationally in 2010, 57 percent of women were higher education students compared to 49 percent in Utah. 

“There definitely is a link between women who continue after high school and get their education, particularly at the bachelor level and higher, in terms of true self-esteem that relates to their minds, their hearts and their hands in terms of what they can do and how they can help others. I think there were some really interesting finds with that,” said Madsen.

As the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Utah Valley University, Dr. Madsen is researching the lifetime development of prominent women leaders. She and her colleagues are measuring the impacts of higher education on a woman’s over-all health and well-being.  Data supports the theory that educated women are better at engaging effectively in civic and community activities. For example, women with a college degree are more likely to vote than those who only receive a high school diploma.

Madsen and her team report women who attend a college or university are also better at discussing issues related to race and gender roles and data also confirms that body image issues differ for women who are educated compared to those who are not higher education graduates.

“When women go to college, stay in college and actually graduate from college, they develop so many things in terms of critical thinking but also self-confidence,” she said. “One of the professors in our behavioral science department actually did an extensive qualitative study on plastic surgery in Utah and found very strong links between women who were educated and women who were not.”

According to the research, women who had a college education were not the ones getting plastic surgery and were not the ones really concerned as much with their bodies.

Because she feels so strongly about her research findings, Madsen has stepped outside of her higher education classroom to develop leadership training courses in the community that encourage today’s young women to look toward a future that includes attending a college or university. She recognizes the many obstacles leadership development trainers face when working with young girls who are often told they don’t live up to popular, unrealistic standards.  

“82 percent of ten-year-old girls in the United States are afraid of being fat,” she said. “That is a startling statistic. They are so afraid of being fat and that they need to look a certain way. They are feeling those pressures that they have to be and feel a certain way because of their roles. That’s a real concern”.

Awareness and creating urgency about these issues is important, says Madsen, who believes there is a way to encourage stronger girls and boys, stronger men and women.  During her leadership training conferences, she follows her awareness training with programs that help attendees find a different identity. During these training, participants are introduced to terms that better define more concrete attributes of an individual. Those attributes are reinforced through exercises until they become understood and recognized. Madsen and her instructors take the training one step further by encouraging participation in workshops that do a real job of teaching lasting skills that she says enlighten and enhance young attendees in ways that will help them recognize their potential.

One such program is based out of Colorado and is called Smart Girl. Konie Humphreys attended the organizations leadership and management training while working for the Utah State University Center for Women and Gender. For two years she shared the techniques and tips she learned with other team leaders who worked with her during a week-long Smart Girl summer camp in Logan. Young girls from Northern Utah and Davis County spent a hot summer week playing water games and learning circle songs like “Little Sally Walker”, where each member of the group takes a turn dancing in the circle before selecting someone else to shuffle to the beat of the rhythm.

“It is an enrichment and preventative program,” said Humphreys. “It helps them with life skills such as communication skills, relationship skills, anti-bullying and positive body image.”

Between the ages of 11 and 15, the girls also participate in a project where they are asked to sit in a circle and pass along a wooden box. They are told the box contains an image of someone special. They are encouraged to say something about the person they see without using words that describe a physical attraction. Many of the girls are noticeably uncomfortable when they open the box to find a mirror reflecting their image.

Humphreys says some of the girls remain silent before passing the box. They find it too difficult to use a description that isn’t based on appearance. Those girls who do use descriptions like “good listener” or “bright minded” set an example for the others of ways to recognize attributes they all possess but are not always encouraged to highlight.

As a resource for future support once the workshop ends, the girls provide all of their camp friends with a notebook full of pages that include poems, art work, and thoughts about shared experiences. Madsen says today’s girls need programs and workshops that allow for self-expression, confidence building, and skill training. She has found that well established workshops, along with leadership training, can eventually lead to young girls not only deciding to attend a university, but provide them with the confidence needed to become a university president. 

***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists  raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.