Like many teenagers, Danielle Thompson’s 14-year-old uses selfies as her Facebook profile photos. To Thompson’s relief, her daughter’s pictures aren’t the pouty-lipped, cleavage-baring glamour shots popular among some young social media enthusiasts. Most pictures of Thompson’s daughter just show the high school freshman wearing modest T-shirts and staring into the camera with a slight smile.
“She is way tamer than some of the stuff I see posted by a few of her friends,” Thompson, of Enfield, N.H., said.
A new report suggests that when it comes to young women’s social media photos, tame might be the way to go — and not just for the obvious reason of avoiding attention from sexual predators lurking on the Internet. A study from Oregon State University found that a young woman who uses a “sexy” profile picture is generally viewed as less competent than when she uses a “non-sexy” photo.
And who proffers such judgments? Her peers.
The study surveyed more than 100 teen girls and women ages 13 to 25. The participants were shown a Facebook profile for a fictitious 20-year-old woman whom researchers named Amanda. Some were shown a profile that included a “non-sexy” picture of “Amanda” in a short-sleeved shirt, a scarf, and jeans. Others were shown a profile with a “sexy” photo, with Amanda wearing a low-cut red dress with a mid-thigh slit, exposing a garter belt. (The photos were of the same person, a young woman who gave permission for her images to be used in the experiment.)
The study participants rated Amanda on a 1 to 7 scale for likability, attractiveness, and competence. In all three categories, the “non-sexy” version of Amanda scored higher but the biggest difference in scores came in the competence category. The profile with the more modest photo was much more likely to inspire the conclusion that Amanda had the “ability to get a job done.” The profile with sexy photo — not so much.
“This is a clear indictment of sexy social media photos,” said researcher Elizabeth Daniels, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.”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.”
Daniels told me she chose to study young womens’ reactions to sexy photos because they experience the most social pressure to be sexy, but she also plans to expand her research to include men’s reactions to “sexualized vs. non-sexualized” social media photos of women as well.
But Daniels isn’t waiting to hear what men have to say before offering her own advice to young, female social media users. In a statement released by Oregon State, Daniels urges them to choose profile photos “that showcase their identity rather than her appearance, such as one from a trip or one that highlights participation in a sport or hobby.”
Daniels also said her research demonstrates a need for more discourse on attitudes toward young girls and women.
“Why is it we focus so heavily on girls’ appearances?” she said. “What does this tell us about gender? Those conversations should be part of everyday life.”
For Thompson, the New Hampshire mom, it’s important that anyone seeing her daughter’s pictures understands that she’s a person “with substance” — that she’s intelligent, fun, sincere, caring and “engaged in the world around her.”
But can a profile picture really communicate all that?
Thompson concedes that the answer is “no,” but adds that “a profile pic can sometimes poke holes in the credibility of those attributes.” That’s why Thompson and her husband consistently remind their daughter to take care in not posting photos that may haunt her later.
“Mistakes are a given, but a pattern of mistakes can really hurt your reputation,” she said, “online or off.”
“The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus non-sexualized Facebook profile photo,” co-authored by Eileen L. Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, was published this week in the journal “Psychology of Popular Media Culture.”
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