A recent study out of Oregon State University reports that women who post provocative photos of themselves on social media websites are not only seen as less physically and socially attractive by their female peers — they’re also viewed as less competent.
The researchers’ findings were published in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture this month, in an article entitled “The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus non-sexualized Facebook profile photo.” Assistant professor and researcher Elizabeth Daniels told the journal her experiment was based on a fake Facebook profile for a fictitious 20-year-old woman named Amanda Johnson. The study analyzed a consensus of responses from 58 teenage girls and 60 young adult women.
Daniels created two versions of Johnson — one dressed in provocative clothing, another in casual modest attire — but kept her interests (she likes “Twilight,” guys, chill out) and basic information the same. Study participants were shown one of the two versions of the profile and asked to rank Johnson’s physical and social attractiveness, as well as her task competence, on a scale from 1 to 7.
Despite what popular culture may suggest, the more provocative photo did not resonate well with testers:
In all three areas, the non-sexy profile scored higher, indicating that those who viewed that photo thought Amanda was prettier, more likely to make a good friend, and more likely to complete a task. The largest difference was in the area of task competence, suggesting a young woman’s capabilities are really dinged by the sexy photo, Daniels said.
While the study raises interesting points of how women are viewing other women on social media, another area of interest happens to be what was considered to be sexy attire for a woman by researchers. According to Oregon State’s release, Johnson was wearing “a low-cut red dress with a slit up one leg to mid-thigh and a visible garter belt” in her “sexy” photo. Apparently, the pictures were of a real woman of a different name who gave her consent to be part of the study. She provided her prom and high school senior class photos.
In comparison, in her “non-sexy” photo she was “wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and a scarf draped around her neck, covering her chest.”
Another recent study out of the University of Rochester found that women view other women who are wearing the color red as a sexual threat, and goes as far to suggest that female participants would not feel comfortable leaving their significant others in a room with a woman wearing this color. Perhaps for good reason, too, as previous studies have found that the color is perceived as “sexual bait” by men.
If Johnson still wore a low-cut dress with a slit up the leg and a “visible garter belt” (What is this? Moulin Rouge?), but it was another color, say a nice non-threatening white or beige or maybe even seafoam green, would the study yield the same results? What if she was wearing a bikini — or better yet, a red bikini? Is it how much skin we’re showing, or how we’re framing it?
Regardless, Daniels and her research team hopes the study will shed light on the social pressures and ramifications that young women are currently facing online. While sharing sexualized photos online may yield positive results for some young women from the opposite sex (red!), the deep-rooted effects among their same-sex peers may not be worth it.
“There is so much pressure on teen girls and young women to portray themselves as sexy,” said Daniels. “But sharing those sexy photos online may have more negative consequences than positive.”