Study: ‘Sexy’ pictures on social media make women less competent, attractive to their peers


(Lotus Carroll/Flickr)

There is, it seems, no shortage of career advice for professional ladies trying to get ahead at work.

Lean in, we’re told.

Don’t apologize, they say.

Now a psychologist at Oregon State University has a new maxim for working women: Quit it with the sexy selfies already. They make you look way less competent — at least to your female peers.

That finding/vindication of everything your mother ever told you comes from a study published Monday in the journal “Psychology of Popular Media Culture.” In the study, then-OSU psychologist Elizabeth Daniels — now at the University of Colorado — asked 58 girls aged 13 to 18 and 60 young adult women aged 17 to 25 to answer a series of questions about a 20-year-old woman’s Facebook profile. Half the participants got a profile with a sexy picture; the other half got the same profile of the same woman, but with a different — more chaste! — picture.

Participants across the board gave the unsexy profile higher marks — in physical attractiveness, social attractiveness and competence (a.k.a., the ability to “get a job done.”)

Ruled Daniels, the psychologist, “We really need to help youth understand this is a very public forum.”

But that actually seems like the least salient takeaway from Daniels’s research. After all, people have been fretting about the prying Internet eyes of colleges and would-be employers for years. We have trend pieces on employers checking social media. How-tos on prepping your social presence for when your employer checks it. Entire companies, even, devoted to sprucing up your profiles — for an outrageous fee, of course.

These days, if 20-somethings post questionable material to Facebook, it’s less likely that they think Facebook is a private space — and more likely they think their posts are A-OK, at least among their peers. In fact, it’s not unusual for millennials (ugh, “millennials”) to dismiss concerns over what they post as intergenerational misunderstanding; maybe the olds don’t get your duck-faced party photos — but everyone else on Instagram has them! Right?!

And that’s what’s so striking about this latest study: It demonstrates the degree to which, even among footloose digital natives, edgy photos are seen as a sign that the subject isn’t credible or competent. Hopefully future research can establish whether that observation holds among young men, as well; based on the gleeful, eviscerating tone of blogs like this one, we’re inclined to say yes.

Maybe you never heeded your mother when she asked you to plz take those beach pics down — but if you want to be taken seriously, at least consider listening to your peers.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · July 15