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Sexualization in social media profile pictures

By Marisa Ragonese

*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

Not too long ago, I worked at a drop-in center for LGBT youth in Queens. Every summer we participated in an activist “boot camp” for youth organizations all across NYC. We would plan workshops and lots of other activities for camp during the school year and then trek out to the country for a week to get down with kids from all over the city, and it was awesome.

One summer, we returned from camp to find lots of MySpace friend requests waiting for us on the computer. One request was from a 15-year-old girl from a leadership group in Brooklyn. I’ll never forget clicking on her page and seeing one of those hyper-sexual body shots—Gasp, was this my new friend?!—and being more than a little surprised at the very intense profile picture staring back at me. You probably know the kind of picture I’m talking about – she was wearing something really really short and really really tight and making a kissy face through the computer screen. And then the profile song started. It was a remix of DJ Caffeine’s “On the Floor” (“Is there anyone on the floor who can f*** me like a whore? Who can make me scream for more?”) and I was like whooaaa. This is crazy.  

But is it really? Maybe the soundtrack was…well, an unusual choice…but what about the profile picture? I might not like it, but haven’t we all seen some variation of this body shot a trillion times on someone’s MySpace or Facebook page?

Inquiring minds wanted to know. Researchers P. Cougar Hall, Joshua H. West, and Emily McIntyre[1] were interested in the ways that women “self-sexualize” (that is, how they present themselves as sexual objects in order to please other people). So they pulled up some computer chairs and looked at 24,000 MySpace profile pictures of women. They wanted to see how often they came across self-sexualizing profile pictures, and how self-sexualization varied by age, ethnicity, education, body type, and sexual orientation. They already knew, from previous research[2], that women are decapitated or chopped up in ads 5 times as much as men (we have no faces or our faces are concealed; the viewer can only see bodies or body parts), and that these types of ads reinforce the idea that women are objects instead of people. Since profile pictures can be considered our own personal “ads,” Hall, West, and McIntyre wanted to find out how often women create “ads” like this for themselves in order to find relationships or someone to kick it with. The popular social networking site MySpace was a good candidate because so many people use it. (And don’t scoff—I’ve heard it’s made a comeback.).

The researchers analyzed the profile pictures of single women who indicated that they were looking for someone to date on MySpace. This helped them figure out how women depict themselves when they’re trying to attract someone. They looked at the pictures to see if women were presenting themselves as “subordinate” by choosing shots that made them look like they were way under the viewer, or shots of the women laying or posing in a bed, or if they seemed positioned to receive sex. They also looked for “body display” – revealing clothing, bathing suits, underwear as clothing, partial nudity. We’re not talking tanktops in the summer here – more like skimpy clothing meant to focus attention on the body in sexual ways. Finally, they looked for profile pictures that were “objectifying.” These pictures left out the faces of women – you know, the boob shot or the leg shot or the looking-over-the-shoulder-with-the-hair-in-the-face thing going on. Then they ran statistical tests to see how often each group of women (by age, ethnicity, race, education, sexual orientation) presented these kinds of profile pictures.  

They found, much to my surprise, that only about 20% of the profile pictures contained some form of body display. Most often these were pictures of the women wearing revealing clothing. They also found that about 17% of the photos fell into the subordinate category (the hovering over you shot), and about 8% of the pictures were objectifying. According to the researchers, these numbers were low compared to the frequency of sexualized shots of women in ads and men’s magazines. Isn’t it awesome that despite the constant onslaught of sexualized media, women in the study weren’t sexualizing themselves all the time, or even most of the time?

I really think so.

The study offers lots of information on self-sexualization based on many different categories, but in honor of LGBT pride month, let’s talk about the queer findings. First of all, lesbian women had the lowest rate of super-sexy profile pics, and they displayed their bodies less too. The researchers think that lesbians, in general, may reject traditional femininity and may embrace feminism more than non-lesbian women, leading to less sexualizing profile pictures on MySpace, And this leads me to think that if lesbians don’t feel as pressured as straight women to display their bodies sexually in order to find a mate or date, maybe a lot of these (super sexualizing) ideas about what makes a girl hot are really just bogus heterosexual rules about how girls need to look to attract boys. (And we all know what bogus rules are made for: breaking.)

BUT, when the researchers turned their attention to bisexual women, they found something completely different. They found that bisexual women were more likely than heterosexual or lesbian women to self-sexualize. How could this be? The researchers think that bisexual women are often stereotyped in the media as overly sexual, and that their sexuality is often portrayed as yet another way to get guys’ attention. You’ve probably heard the myth “Bisexuals can’t actually like both men and women, right? It’s just a ploy to attract guys!” Well, the researchers think that these ideas about bisexual women played a role in the ways that these women in the study portrayed themselves. In other words, maybe bisexual women have accepted these (sexualized) stereotypes about what it means to be bi, and therefore posted supersexual pictures of themselves in places like MySpace.   


As an activist, I always like to know more about how sexist standards for women are influencing and limiting the way that women think about and portray ourselves. This study is useful because it shows us that women who are not trying to attract men may not feel as pressured as straight women to be over-the-top sexual in order to be attractive. The study also shows us that lots of women (lesbian and non-lesbian) don’t buy into (or at least don’t adopt) the media depiction of women as things and body parts.

And that’s the sexiest thing I’ve heard in a long time.

[1] Hall, P. C., West, J. H., & McIntyre, E. (2012). Female self-sexualization in MySpace. com personal profile photographs. Sexuality & Culture, 16, 1-16.

[2] Krassas, N., Blauwkamp, J., & Wesselink, P. (2003). ‘‘Master your Johnson’’: Sexual rhetoric in Maxim and Stuff magazines. Sexuality and Culture, 7, 98–119

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