Tech + Health

07.16.14

Ladies Hate Other Ladies’ Sexy Selfies

A new study shows how women judge other women based on their profile pictures. The results aren’t surprising, but they are disappointing.

Sorry, girls: Fellow females hate your sexy profile shot, according to a new study. Researchers at Oregon State University found that women were more likely to look down on those who post provocative images online, branding them as less competent than those who cover up.

Elizabeth Daniels, assistant professor of psychology, studies the relationship between the media and girls’ body image. She conducted the project by creating two identical Facebook profiles for the fictitious Amanda Johnson, with one crucial difference: Hot Mandy’s picture featured her in a split-thigh red dress (garter and all), while Responsible Mandy’s photo saw her wearing jeans and a tee, with a scarf covering her breasts. Suffice to say, the lady in the red dress did not impress her female peers. Sensible, cleavage-free Amanda was responded to far more positively.

“This is a clear indictment of sexy social media photos,” Daniels said. “There is so much pressure on teen girls and young women to portray themselves as sexy, but sharing those sexy photos online may have more negative consequences than positive.”

It’s important to present yourself reasonably to others, but surely it’s more important to present yourself as you actually are—and if that means your profile pic has you corset-clad with a whip between your teeth then get it, girl.

118 women participated in the study—58 of whom were teenagers aged 13-18, and 60 of whom were young adults aged 17-25. Candidates were assigned one of Amanda’s profiles at random and asked a series of questions on how they perceived her, with physical attractiveness, likeability, and competence being ranked. Both pages listed the same information, with Amanda’s interests including Twilight, Lady Gaga, and The Notebook.

The non-sexy profile scored higher on every count, confirming that people always judge a book by its cover—especially when that cover’s a little scandalous. Indeed, the biggest dip in the rankings was the response to the competency question, where participants were asked how capable Amanda seemed of being able to perform a task. Her risqué get-up obviously made it challenging for people to believe that she had any abilities at all.

There’s no moral high ground to be claimed here: we’re socialized to think that anyone whose dress sense doesn’t toe the line must have the intellectual capacity of a turnip, so it’s not surprising that Hot Mandy didn’t go down too well with her peers. Sad, sure, but not surprising.

Because as liberal, laid-back, and totally-chill-man-I’m-cool-whatever we’d like to think we are, the simple facts remain: Women are subject to incessant scrutiny over their looks, and we struggle to accept that there isn’t always a connection between the way a person presents themselves on the outside, and the reality of what goes on internally. It’s important to present yourself reasonably to others, but surely it’s more important to present yourself as you actually are—and if that means your profile pic has you corset-clad with a whip between your teeth then get it, girl.

Daniels, however, advises the opposite, believing that “we need to help youth understand this is a very public forum,” and that profile photos should be selected on the basis of how well they represent your “identity” as opposed to your looks. That sounds reasonable enough, but what if your identity is that of a smart person who enjoys dressing like a Victorian prostitute?

Girls are being made to lean in so hard they’re practically booty popping as it is, and between all that leaning and whatever else some sleek-bobbed, high-heeled boardroom lady is telling us to do that week, some synthetic public persona that bears no resemblance to the real you is hardly going to prove more effective in the big bad world. Be aware that future employers may see what you’re posting, yes, but don’t catfish them into believing that you’re another person entirely.

There’s no denying that people need to be thoughtful about what they post online, but trying to cultivate a tribe of sweater-toting automatons is not the way to create a meaningful discussion about the representation of gender across social media.