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Judgments of self-sexualization on Facebook, or, too sexy to be smart

by Jenn Chmielewski

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

It’s that time of year when I start seeing photo after photo on Facebook of people vacationing in awesome (warm) locations. While I am still cold in New York City, I see them lounging on beautiful beaches in bikinis or partying like rock stars in crop tops at Coachella. I will admit, as I sift through Facebook in my pajamas, I start to get a little jealous – and a little judgmental. Some of those bikini shots on the beach seem pretty sexualized. When it looks like a Kardashian directed a photo shoot, I start to turn up my nose a bit. The feminist in me knows this isn’t right though. I mean, really, the media is constantly telling us that we should be focused on looking attractive all the time, so it’s no wonder young women sometimes sexualize themselves in an effort to look sexy. I don’t always agree with what that definition of “sexy” should be, but the pressure to look the part affects me too. I don’t want to have to have full makeup on at the beach or crawl around in the sand while a friend captures it on camera, for instance. But I also won’t post a picture where I feel like my hair doesn’t look right or my eyes are closed or my belly is sticking out just a little too much… So why should I judge how young women on Facebook are spending their time on a beautiful beach? Does that make them less feminist than me or less smart than me, just because they want to portray themselves in a more sexualized way than I am comfortable doing myself?

All of this made me wonder how other girls and young women perceive self-sexualizing photos on social media. We know that buying into the sexualized media ideal can have negative consequences, from body dissatisfaction and eating disorders to limited career aspirations. But how does it affect what other people think about us? It turns out that researchers Elizabeth Daniels and Eileen Zurbriggen[1] actually just did a cool experiment on this topic. They asked adolescent girls and young adult women to view a Facebook profile of a 20-year old white, blonde-haired woman named “Amanda.” Each participant saw Amanda dressed in either a non-sexualized way or a sexualized way. Non-sexualized Amanda was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt with a scarf around her neck in her profile photo. Sexualized Amanda was wearing a low-cut red dress with a slit up the leg to the mid-thigh and a visible garter belt in her profile photo. After participants looked at one of these Facebook profiles for Amanda, they were asked a bunch of questions about her, like how attractive they thought she was, how much they would want to be friends with her, and how smart they thought she was.

If you have ever had thoughts like mine when you look at sexualized Facebook profiles, you probably will not be surprised by what these researchers found. It turns out that both teenage girls and young adult women who viewed the sexualized profile of Amanda rated her as less physically attractive, socially attractive, and competent, than the participants who looked at the non-sexualized Facebook profile. In other words, people who saw Amanda in the sexualized condition were less likely to find her attractive, were less likely to want to be friends with her, and were less likely to think she could handle tasks competently. They had all these negative attitudes just based on what she was wearing.  

So where does this leave us in a sexualized world where we are told our looks matter more than anything else, but we are judged when we try to look sexy in a sexualized way (and we judge others for doing the same). It sure feels like we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Look, I could say that the lesson of this study is that young women shouldn’t buy into the sexualized ideal and post those racy Facebook photos because they will be judged negatively by other girls and women for it. But as a young woman and a feminist I know it’s not that simple. Girls and women who post sexualized photos are not the problem. We should not be force-fed the idea that dressing in a sexualized way is the only way to be sexy. And we should be more understanding of the pressures we are all under. Some of us want to reject the system that encourages us to self-sexualize but we shouldn’t reject girls when they buy into it sometimes.

Now, I’m not exactly saying I’m going to start hitting the ‘Like’ button when I see my acquaintances in their Victoria’s Secret-style photo shoots. But I will check myself and my nose turning. Because I know where the desire to look that way comes from. And hey, who knows, maybe it feels good to some people too! I’ve never crawled around on the sand – who am I to knock it? So when I see these photos, I will also start reminding myself to be a little less judgmental and a little more supportive of the multitude of ways that girls and women can find their own sexy.

[1] Daniels, E. A., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2016). The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus nonsexualized Facebook profile photograph. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5, 2-14.

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