Sexy Profile Pics Make Women Seem Less Competent to Peers

Putting sexy pictures of yourself on social media is an easy way to get attention, but it may not always be the kind of attention you want, according to a new study which found that young women who post sexy or reveal photos on Facebook or other social media sites tend to be viewed as less competent, as well as less physically and socially attractive, by their female peers.

The article, titled “The price of sexy: Viewers' perceptions of a sexualized versus non-sexualized Facebook profile photo” and published in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture, is based on a study that examined the reactions of 118 teenage girls and young women, ages 13-25, to two fake Facebook profiles for the same (fictitious) 20-year-old woman. All the profile details were the same except the profile pictures, which were high school photos from a real young woman who consented to their use. One photo showed her in a revealing red dress, while the other shows her in jeans, a t-shirt and a scarf that covers her chest.  

All participants were randomly shown one of the profiles and then asked to use a numerical scale from 1 to 7 to express agreement or disagreement with statements including “I think she is pretty,” “I think she could be a friend of mine,” and “I have confidence in her ability to get a job done.” The more modest profile scored significantly higher in all three areas, including physical attractiveness, but the biggest disparity was seen in their assessment of the fictitious woman’s competence.

This obviously puts young women in a double bind, since sexy photos are a common way to elicit attention from men. Elizabeth Daniels, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, stated: “This is a clear indictment of sexy social media photos. 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.”

Social media is clearly mixed up with issues of self-esteem and self-image. Back in May I wrote about a study by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, which found that the ability to share information about ourselves and receive approval for it on Facebook is a key factor in self-esteem and feelings of belonging for Facebook users. The study, titled “Threats to belonging on Facebook: lurking and ostracism” and published in the journal Social Influence, found that “people who did not receive a response to a status update experienced lower levels of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence than did those who received a response.”

Another study by researchers at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Iowa, and the University of Ohio found that Facebook use may result in an increased likelihood of negative body image issues among young women. The study, titled “Facebook and College Women's Bodies: Social Media's Influence on Body Image and Disordered Eating,” surveyed 881 college women about their Facebook use, eating and exercise habits, and body image. Overall, young women who spent more time on Facebook were more likely to compare their bodies to their friends’ and to have negative feelings about their bodies. In fact the researchers were able to predict when subjects would have negative feelings based on how much time they spent looking at others’ photos on Facebook.

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