From Bikinis to Hijabs: Using Psychology to Your Advantage

Top image via CNN. Bottom image via IslamOnline.net

Top image via CNN. Bottom image via IslamOnline.net

My eyebrows raised when I read this article on IslamOnline. The article, entitled Study: Men Objectify Scantily Clad Women, used a current study conducted by well-known Princeton psychologist, Dr. Susan Fiske, to promote modest clothing.

I am familiar with Dr. Fiske’s work, and I couldn’t help but question whether IslamOnline was misrepresenting the study in an effort to promote the necessity of hijab. As someone doing her Ph.D. in social psychology, I am familiar with how the results of social psychological studies can be manipulated through the use of language in such a way to support an argument one is trying to make and consequently taking the results out of context. And this is what seems to have happened in this IslamOnline article.

Amel Abdullah, the author of the piece,  begins her article by describing the study and explaining the three main results. She reports that:

  • images of scantily clad women were better remembered by heterosexual male participants
  • when the male participants viewed scantily-clad women, areas of the brain associated with “tool use, hand manipulation, and the urge to take action” were activated
  • men who scored high on hostile sexism thought of these scantily-clad women as less human.

Immediately after presenting these findings, she starts discussing the role of the hijab and how it protects women. She makes a leap from images of women in bikinis to the hijab, which she describes as “religiously mandated modest dress that covers the shape of the body and includes the headscarf or veil.” This leap is highly inappropriate and illogical. Let me explain why.

I was able to obtain a lay summary of the study from Dr. Fiske and after comparing the lay summary to Abdullah’s article, found Abdullah’s work to be biased and her use of the study findings inappropriate.

To begin with, Abdullah’s terminology is very problematic and re-interprets the results to suit her argument. The lay summary for the study, as well as all media outlet reports, are clear that the four types of images used were of fully clothed men and women, and scantily clad men and women. Specifically, the images of scantily clad women were of women in bikinis. If one ignores the way in which Dr. Fiske and her research team operationally defined* “scantily clad” one risks misunderstanding the results. And this is what Abdullah has done.

IslamOnline explains (emphasis mine):

When psychologist Susan Fiske and a team of researchers at Princeton University performed MRI brain scans on heterosexual men who viewed a series of images showing both scantily clad and fully clothed men and women, they found that the men had an unmistakable response to women wearing less clothing.

The less they wore, the more likely it was for the premotor cortex and the posterior middle temporal gyrus to light up. These are the areas of the brain associated with tool use, hand manipulation, and the urge to take action.

It should not be “women wearing less clothing” but rather “women wearing bikinis.” Bikinis is clear. Less clothing is unclear. Less than what? We know that a bikini is a two-piece swimsuit. It usually exposes the midriff, legs, arms, etc. Additionally, saying that “the less they wore triggered these responses” implies that various levels of clothing coverage, or various stages of undress, were presented to the participants in the study.

This wording alters the realities of the study completely. Various stages of undress were not presented to the participants. Only two levels of clothing were presented. There were no measurements of reactions at varying levels of clothing. IslamOnline’s use of the phrase “less clothing” is deceptive and twists the findings of the study, which showed pictures of women in a very specific form of “less clothing” – the bikini.

The Daily Princetonian explains (emphasis mine):

Fiske’s team used an MRI machine to scan the brains of the students while they viewed a series of photographs of men and women, some of whom were fully clothed and others of whom wore only swimsuits.

The pictures of bikini-clad women activated brain regions associated with objects or “things you manipulate with your hands,” Fiske said.

The lay summary states (emphasis mine):

…heterosexual men, in a surprise memory test, were significantly better at recognizing bikini-clad female bodies (with heads removed), than they were at recognising any of the other three types of images or any kind of faces.

The researchers’ operational definition* of “fully clothed” was not provided. However, in my personal correspondence with Dr. Fiske, she mentioned that the effects of objectifying women were not seen for women in traditional Western attire. Therefore, my assumption is that “fully clothed” for this study was a woman wearing Western clothing, which is not the full hijab. Therefore, women who dress like the average North American/Westerner were not objectified by the male participants.

IslamOnline continues:

According to a lay summary of Fiske’s study provided to IslamOnline.net, when a man’s mentalizing network shuts down, this means he views sexualized women as “less human.”

The lay summary states:

As predicted, hostile sexism predicted less activation of otherwise reliable social cognition networks…in response to looking at bikini-clad women. This implicates more hostile attitudes in predicting deactivation of the mentalizing network, consistent with viewing sexualized women as less human.

Mentalizing is defined as “considering other people’s thoughts and feelings.” Therefore, men who held stronger hostile sexist** attitudes toward women were more likely to think of bikini-clad women as less human. Not all men and all women in any type of clothing.

Abdullah also speaks of Dr. Peter Glick’s study, in which he found that women in positions of power who wear provocative clothes at work may be less respected. However, within an American context, within which this study was conducted, what is provocative? What may be provocative in reference to full hijab is not going to be provocative in the average American context.

Top image via National Geographic News. Bottom image via IslamOnline.net

Top image via National Geographic News. Bottom image via IslamOnline.net

Abdullah then continues the rest of the article, describing the protective and mandatory nature of the hijab. Stating that the hijab protects women from unwanted sexual attention by using this study as proof is a stretch. Unfortunately, I think we all know women in full hijab who have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. Using this study to prove its protective capabilities is deceptive. The current study found that images of women in bikinis were objectified, not images of women in pant suits, jeans and tank tops, professional skirts and blazers, and so on and so on. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, average, non-hijab, Western-attired women were not objectified. Therefore, one need not wear full hijab to not be objectified.

Now, to be very clear, I am not arguing against the hijab. I am saying that using this psychological study to imply that any clothing short of the full hijab makes one vulnerable to being objectified is nonsensical. This study does not prove that. No psychological study ever proves anything (but that’s scientific debate for another time). What this study implies is that heterosexual men are somehow hard-wired to objectify women in bikinis. That’s it.

In her article, Abdullah takes this study and the women involved completely out of their cultural contexts. Dr. Fiske’s study looked at images of women in average American attire and bikinis. To use this study to “prove” that full hijab will thus protect women from objectification assumes that if women are not in full hijab, then they may as well be wearing bikinis, because they’ll be objectified the same. And this of course is highly offensive to women who do not wear full hijab. We are then assumed to be fair game for objectification. And I’m not even going to get into the possible moral implications involved.

If one wants to use psychological studies to prove one’s point, then one should at least choose a study that actually does prove the point. Adullah’s use of early stage psychological studies, which the researchers have acknowledged require further investigation, only misuses and misrepresents findings which could have real and serious relevancies for other situations.

*An operational definition is defining a research concept, often a variable being measured, in such a way so as to enable others to independently measure the variable. This would mean one would have to define it in such as way to allow readers to understand exactly what the researcher means when she measures that variable. In this case “scantily clad” was defined as “bikini” so that we know exactly what was measured.

** Hostile sexism is a form of sexism conceptualized by Drs. Fiske and Glick. It is one of two forms sexism can take, with the other being benevolent sexism. Together the two concepts make up Ambivalent Sexism. Hostile sexism is the type of sexism most of us are familiar with – “Women are trying to get ahead of men,” “Women are trying to take our rights away,” etc. It’s usually hateful. Benevolent sexism sounds positive in tone but can also be seen to hold women back. “Only women have the special abilities to care for chidren therefore they must stay at home to take care of them,” “Women are too pure to be dealing with all those men out there so should stay inside the home.” etc. It usually places women on a pedestal.

  • Broomstick

    LOL, I know guys who actually FETISHIZE and OBJECTIFY hijabis (or even niqabis) in a weird, sick, twisted, sexual way. So it’s not really the bikinis, it’s the woman herself that guys are attracted to…. I once met this weirdo who pretended to be a woman online so he could convince hijabis to show themselves on webcam.. I was disgusted and offended!

  • Broomstick

    P.S did you REALLY have to put up that photo of the bikini clad girls? Gross, i almost barfed.

  • Sobia

    I’ll just address the pictures once. The pictures were there to show the contrast of the clothing as an illustration of how much range there is regarding clothing between bikinis and hijab. There’s a lot of room in between.

    Not sure if I find the pictures barf-worthy though.

  • Sobia

    Oh…also…these were the pictures that accompanied the news reports of the study.

  • Yusuf Islam II

    It’s sad to see people talking about vomiting in connection with pictures of the human body.

    It would be nice to share a planet with people who valued and respected other members of the human race, rather than nearly vomiting at the sight of them.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    I never felt like more of a sexual object than when I was living in Iran. When tdress is discussed in terms of protecting women from sexual objectification–24/7, 100% of the time, shoved down your throats, in every possible media channel and on the street every damn day in the form of compulsory hijab–it is no surprise that women’s bodies becomes hyper-sexualized.

    The act of ‘protecting’ me from unwanted sexual attention only exacerbated the problem. Everything was about sex, even if it was about not having sex. Can’t do this because of sex. Can’t do that because of sex. And what’s the end result? Try not to think about sex, everyone!

    I’ve never experienced more unwanted stares, sexual advances, and harassment in my life. (And no, it’s not because I’m ‘white’ or ‘foreign’. I blend right in. And every woman I talked to experienced the same problem). It’s certainly not because Iranians have more horn-dog tendencies in their blood, but more that our notions of modesty and sexuality are social constructs.

  • Faith

    Thanks for the analysis Sobia. I dissect pieces on IslamOnline.net more than I would a mainstream news site simply because I know that ION’s purpose to is propagate Islam (not that that’s bad). I was very suspicious about the article too simply because I doubted that the study was “proving” what the articles said it was. I wish we could defend hijab without having to resort to “science”. I think a lot of Muslims have this need to “objectively” prove that what we believe and do is right as if we’re trying to convince someone that we’re right. I have to admit when I was younger I would’ve probably done the same thing though.

    You’re very right about hijabis being sexually harassed. I’ve been sexually harassed in hijab and when I say hijab I mean pretty conservative hijab (jilbab or very long, loose skirt with very long shirt that comes down almost to my knee).

    I do have one question before I end. Sobia, you said you spoke to the author of the study. Why did she do the study? What was she hoping to achieve? I’ve been curious about that for at least a week now.

  • Sobia

    @Faith:

    Thanks. And that’s a good question. I did not ask her why she did the study but her work and research is around sexism and misogyny. She also looks at other forms of discrimination and prejudice.

    Here is her website:
    http://weblamp.princeton.edu/~psych/psychology/research/fiske/index.php

    Since objectification is a form of dehumanization it would fall under her interests. However, I will email her with this critique and perhaps she will be able to answer your question.

  • Ghuraba

    I agree that she extrapolated far too much when she mentioned *degrees* of clothing, however your blog post focuses on one sentence (literally) to discredit the entire article. So, although your conclusion is correct, I think this is nitpicking.

    Obviously (to a man anyway), the determining factor was not the bikini itself, as you seem to imply, but the body it revealed:

    > “It was as if they immediately thought about how they might act on these *bodies*,” Fiske explained during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which was held in Chicago, February 12-16.

    And about the cultural context aspect of the study: do you really believe it is much of a stretch to consider “Western dress” the equivalent of the bikini in a Middle Eastern context? Or are these results somehow limited to Western men due to some specificity in their brain? For example, you mention the tank top; Middle Eastern men would probably look upon it as Western men look upon the bikini. Of course, this can’t be proved until a study is done in that cultural context as well, but I do believe this study’s conclusions are universal.

    Finally, I don’t understand the straw man here:

    > Not all men and all women in any type of clothing.

    Is that not exactly what she said? :

    > > this means he views *sexualized* women as “less human.”

  • Pingback: Modest Sexism « Desifeminists’ Blog

  • Ghuraba

    Rochelle,

    I think it is simply that Western men have learned to stare without being noticed. ; )

  • Ahmed

    What’s offensive is this critique and its Islamphobia! Amel Abdullah is only trying to do a good thing, she did not misinterpret the finding and it’s not her argument it’s Allah’s (SWT) argument. Abdullah did not make a leap between the two arguments: re-read it.

    Faith, hijab does protect against sexual attention, you just have to wear it properly which most women don’t do. And you must also behave in a well mannered way by keeping your distance.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Ghuraba: The complaint about nitpicking isn’t appropriate here. Our aim is to analyze and critique media representation of Muslim women, so the “you’re taking it too seriously” line of thinking just doesn’t apply.

    And Sobia’s article looks at Abdullah’s piece as a whole, not just “one sentence”: the IslamOnline piece’s aim is to defend hijab, which is fine, but it twists a scientific study to do so. That’s problematic.

  • Sobia

    @ Ghuraba:

    “however your blog post focuses on one sentence (literally) to discredit the entire article.”

    Which sentence? I’ve quoted more than one sentence here. However if you’re alluding to me pointing how the study used the word “bikini” and the article kept using “less clothing” then this is not knit picking. As I explained in the post itself bikini was used as the operational definition of scantily clad. In a psychological study the operational definition is the way to know exactly what the researchers are studying and the way to interpret the results as accurately as one can. If one ignores the operational definition then one can easily misinterpret the results. So knit picking regarding that word was absolutely necessary. That was the point.

    “Obviously (to a man anyway), the determining factor was not the bikini itself, as you seem to imply, but the body it revealed”

    A very specific amount of body that was revealed by the bikini.

    “do you really believe it is much of a stretch to consider “Western dress” the equivalent of the bikini in a Middle Eastern context?”

    Yes, I think it would be a HUGE stretch. I have known many Middle Eastern women who wear Western dress and I really don’t think they feel like they are walking around in a bikini. Many women in the Middle East wear Western clothing. I doubt they are seen as equivalent to wearing a bikini.

    “Or are these results somehow limited to Western men due to some specificity in their brain? For example, you mention the tank top; Middle Eastern men would probably look upon it as Western men look upon the bikini.”

    So far not too much can be said of the results. This is the first study and more would need to be conducted before we could make any sort of generalizations, if we ever can.

    And the IslamOnline article wasn’t just addressing Middle Easterners – it was addressed to Muslims. Muslims include those from Pakistan and India for instance who wouldn’t think twice about women in sleeveless shirts.

    “Of course, this can’t be proved until a study is done in that cultural context as well, but I do believe this study’s conclusions are universal.”

    This is one study. Just one study. To take one study and assume it’s universal is very premature. In social psychology we have recognized that even some of the traditional theories and models may not necessarily be universal, how can we say that these findings based on just one study are universal. Not a very scientific conclusion.

    “Finally, I don’t understand the straw man here:
    >Not all men and all women in any type of clothing.
    Is that not exactly what she said? :
    > > this means he views *sexualized* women as “less human.””

    Please read the sentence before it.

    “Therefore, men who held stronger hostile sexist** attitudes toward women were more likely to think of bikini-clad women as less human.”

    By not all men I meant the men who held hostile sexist attitudes. Not all men hold hostile sexist attitudes. The not all women argument came from the overall message of the article which was pretty clear. The focus was any woman who did not wear full hijab, which is the majority of women.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Ahmed: Mkay. Read our comment moderation policy next time before you comment. Because accusations against our contributors and other posters (“Sobia, your article is Islamophobic!” “Faith, wear your hijab right! You’re obviously not doing so!”) is not acceptable here.

    Allah (SWT) didn’t write this article. Abdullah did. This isn’t a place for theological arguments (again, read the comment policy), so don’t bring them here. Assuming that our contributors and readers don’t know jack about Islam doesn’t fly. If you think the article is Islamophobic, say WHY. Pointing fingers isn’t an argument.

    As for Sobia’s post: re-read it.

  • Sobia

    @ Ahmed:

    You may want to double check the meaning of Islamophobia. And as far as Faith’s hijab – when did you see it? If you’re experiencing some cognitive dissonance don’t abuse us to resolve it.

    Abdullah does not have any divine privilege. Last I heard the last person to have that connection to God was the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The rest of us just interpret.

  • sisternebraska

    @ Ahmed, also:

    Sorry bro, but one way to get yourself almost universally hated is becoming a man who tells women how to wear hijab. You can’t pull it off unless you’re Ali from Ummah Films…and even that’s kind of a stretch.

    >> I think it would be interesting to find out if the bikini itself has a weird psychological effect. It’s associated with being wet, having a good time, and Sports Illustrated, which goes a long way towards a man’s response to such an item of clothing. If you covered the areas covered by a bikini with something else, would you get the same responses?

  • Zahra

    My ex used to tell me how guys the KSA would just randomly sexually harrass women – fully veiled eyes and all – he thought it was funny how the object of their intent would turn out to be their great aunt or grandma or something. Obviously “more” doesn’t protect there, or for the many women sexually harrassed while making Hajj or on the streets of Egypt – fully covered. Modesty is relative to the society and I think places that force modesty merely hypersexualize women to the point hiding in their homes is the only true protection. I wear hijab out of obligation but am fully aware where I live it attracts attention not detracts. Were I to dress like the “long skirts” (ny name for the Pentacostal gals) I would be modest and unnoticed for the most part – just with no covering for my head. Ultimately, which is better? – can’t say. I just hate the over sexualization of women’s bodies – hate it hate it hate it – most oppresive manifestation of some’s interpretation of Islam.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ sisternebraska: Thanks for saying what I couldn’t! :D

  • http://forgetbaghdad.blogspot.com Nadia

    This reminds me of this Bitch article.

  • Sobia

    Just an added note:

    This study has two other authors as well along with Dr. Fiske – Mina Cikara, PhD candidate at Princeton, and Jennifer Eberhardt, Stanford professor.

  • Sobia

    Oops….that comment posted before I wanted it to. Also, they all do research associated with injustice.

  • swiftpassport

    Bravo, Sobia.

  • Faith

    lol @ Ahmed: I think a few sisters have already said what needs to be said. Its laughable that someone can tell me that I wasn’t wearing “proper hijab” or that I was “acting inappropriately”. When will people stop with the “blame the victim” thinking? Heaven forbid a woman shouldn’t get harassed because, you know, she’s a human being deserving of respect. Even the Qur’an instructs men to “lower their gaze”.

  • http://theyaoireview.wordpress.com/ SakuraKiss

    What concerns me the most is how these discussions of the hijab vs. bikini and such is that it continues to place women within the dichotomy of being a slut/virgin. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of middle ground. Like Zahra said, modesty is mostly relative to the society.

  • Sobia

    @ SakuraKiss:

    That’s my concern as well. There is a middle ground but its not considered acceptable. You’re either a full hijab wearing “virgin” or you’re a “slut” both with their respective positive and negative connotations. A woman’s character continues to be determined by her clothing.

    I too am sick of the hypersexualization and objectification of women anywhere and I think more of an effort needs to be undertaken to alter the ways in which men view women. Arguments such as the one presented in the Islam Online article legitimize objectifying women who do not fit a very particular mold of modest. Instead, the objectification of women by men needs to be considered a serious problem, among Muslims as well as in the larger society, and it needs to be earnestly addressed.

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    This analysis is so good!! Thank you for writing/publishing it. I happened to have heard of the study when it first came out, but wasn’t aware of its (mis)appropriation at IslamOnline.net

    On a bit of a tangential note, I was very struck by this detail: “with heads removed,” in Fiske’s lay summary. I wonder to what extent this may problematize the study. The Daily Princetonian article speaks of “pictures of bikini-clad women,” whereas Fiske’s summary itself refers to “bikini-clad female bodies.” Does a headless female body equate a woman? Arguably, the decapitation factor, so to speak, may be just as significant as the bikini in the tendency to objectify. In fact, I think Fiske’s research sort of implies that, because in addition to images of fully-clothed men and women, the subjects responses were also compared to “any kind of faces.” Anyways, that’s as far as my non-psychologist reading is willing to take me.

    The theoretical question of the female head is actually quite significant, one that I do not think has been adequately addressed–especially not in comparison to the relative attention that has been paid to the body. After all, the hijab is all about the head! I’ve been thinking about this because of a chance discovery of a book, called Off With Her Head! The Denial of Women’s Identity in Myth, Religion, and Culture — an interesting collection of essays that explore various myths and rituals to understand “how men make sense of the female head.” As a whole, they argue that “the objectification of women as sexual and reproductive bodies results in their symbolic beheading.”

    Re. Faith’s remark that we have this tendency in the Muslim community to “objectively” prove things we believe to be right — that is very true! In fact, it’s a broader problem, one that relates to the entire genre of “Islam and Science” writing that’s been prevalent since at least the mid-20th c. (You know what I’m talking about! The whole science-proves-Qur’an business…) This mentality is worthy of critical study, because it reflects the degree to which Muslims are also already products of, and thoroughly conditioned by, scientific modernity. To date, the only “mainstream” Muslim author I’ve found who has addressed this is Tariq Ramadan.

  • Um Omar

    I thought Amel Abdullah’s article made an enormous amount of sense. It doesn’t take science to see these findings in action out in public. Everyday I see Muslim men taking a look at women in tight jeans, following their rear-ends as they walk. If they also look at covered women at least there is less to see and scientifically, according to the findings in the article, these males will not put as much mental effort into ‘thinking’ about them and denigrating them.

    Your bikini photos were hideous and were not necessary to make your point. I thought this was a Muslim site.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Um Omar: First, please read our comment moderation guidelines before posting again. Accusing us of being poor or un-Muslim is a personal attack, and is not acceptable. If you have a problem with the pictures, just tell us why. That’s all you need to say.

    Second, there are several things I take issue with in the first part of your comment. Abdullah’s article argues that the hejab (which I assume to mean headscarf and loose clothing) is scientifically preferable for women to wear, because a study somewhere showed that women in bikinis with their heads removed from the pictures were objectified by men. This point does not automatically lead to the former point, especially when you consider that the other subjects in Fiske’s study wore “regular Western clothing”, which does not usually include extremely loose clothes or headscarves. Since the men didn’t put any effort into objectifying them, then all the study really proves that western men looking at women in regular western clothing do not objectify the latter.

    Also, the accusations you make against Muslim men are pretty offensive. Any man can stare at a woman’s behind, no matter what she’s wearing or his religion. Besides, who is doing wrong? The woman wearing her favorite pair of jeans, or the man looking at her ass? Even if you believe that it’s incumbent upon women not to wear tight clothing, the man is still staring at her ass when he shouldn’t be.

  • Sobia

    @ Um Omar:

    “scientifically, according to the findings in the article, these males will not put as much mental effort into ‘thinking’ about them and denigrating them.”

    No. That is not what the study found. Please re-read the news reports on the study AND my post. You missed the point of the study and the critique. The study found that the women who would be wearing jeans would NOT be objectified. Only the women in bikinis, and headless images at that, were objectified. No where was there mention of tight jeans.

    And as Fatemeh has mentioned, its the men who are looking. No woman forcefully makes a man look at her ass. He chooses to do so of his own free will.

  • Tara K.

    YES! On my campus in Kentucky, a lot of guys will approach hijabis and assume that, after a week or so of friendship, they should be allowed to “see their hair.”

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  • Kristopher Batty

    Is there any way that the name of the specific study done by Fiske that is being referred to could be provided? This isn’t the first time I have heard of someone misinterpreting this study to fit their own needs and I am rather curious to read the actual research.

  • aihley

    Actually, it implies that heterosexual men who score hostile on a specific sexism inventory objectify headless women in bikinis. I don’t think you can even imply generalization of these men’s reactions to normal hetero men… But perhaps I’m too optimistic.


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