Scroll through any social media feed and it won’t take more than a couple thumb swipes to see some selfies. For young people, social media offers an opportunity to project an image of themselves, both literally and figuratively, while in the midst of developing their identity and finding their place in the world.
The pervasive sexualization of women may offer both subtle and overt pressure for young women to post selfies that display their bodies or at least include a sexy smile. It’s not hard to find public concern over young women posting sexualized images of themselves online, and perhaps that’s for good reason, given that a report from a task force of the American Psychological Association clearly outlines a number of quite negative consequences for the sexualization of girls. Not to mention feedback on these photos comes in the form of likes, comments, and followers, a more quantifiable kind of social feedback than perhaps ever before.
But how common are these kinds of photos really? And who is posting them, and why? My student and collaborator Amber Horan and I recently published a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences to answer these questions.
In the study, we asked 61 young women in college to download their ten most recent photographs of themselves posted on Instagram and/or Facebook. We systematically coded each of the resulting 1,060 photographs to produce a sexualization score based on things like clothing, expression, and which body parts were featured in the photograph. The scores for each of the photos were then averaged so that there was one score that represented sexualization on Facebook and one for Instagram.
Interestingly, we found that photographs posted on Instagram were more likely to be sexualized than those posted on Facebook, but, regardless of platform, the rates of sexualization were pretty low. Though the maximum sexualization score possible was a 23, the highest score for any individual was 8.85, and the average scores for Instagram and Facebook were 4.71 and 4.23, respectively. Sexualization might be low because of something about this particular sample, which was all women from one particular college, although it is notable that our study is not the first to find low rates of sexualization on social media. Therefore, it could be that sexualization is actually lower than many would assume. Given that sexualized images can be quite memorable, we might overestimate the frequency of these images because it is easy to think of examples, something that psychologists call the availability heuristic.
In addition to analyzing the photographs themselves, we also took note of the number of likes on the photographs and the number of friends/followers each participant had on each platform. On Instagram (but not Facebook), the more sexualized a photo was, the more likes it received. Additionally, on both platforms, women who posted more sexualized photos tended to have more likes on their photos overall and more friends and followers. Thus, if women are posting these photos for attention, then it seems to be working. It looks like this is a conscious choice because a survey we conducted with the participants showed that desire for attention was the single strongest predictor of posting self-sexualized photos on social media.
While some people are really concerned that young women are sharing sexualized photos of themselves, others argue that women controlling their own sexual image represents the sexual empowerment of young women today. If the latter is true, then the women who post sexualized selfies should also report having control over their sexuality in offline encounters as well. Our survey data show that this isn’t the case. Women who post sexualized photos are actually less likely to report that they are comfortable communicating with potential partners about their sexual desires, and they are no more likely than other women to feel sexual desire, have an interest in sex, feel comfortable with their bodies, or be able to refuse unwanted sexual advances.
Altogether, this study suggests that self-sexualization might not be as common as we think it is, women who post sexualized selfies are motivated by the attention that they do indeed receive from these photos in the form of likes and followers, and this self-sexualization doesn’t actually translate to sexual empowerment in offline encounters. However, more studies like ours should be conducted with a lot of different samples before we draw any firm conclusions about self-sexualization on social media. We think these findings are interesting enough to warrant further research, and given the preponderance of selfies posted on social media, there is little risk of running short of data to analyze.
These findings are described in the article entitled Picture this: Women’s self-sexualization in photos on social media, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This work was conducted by Laura R. Ramsey and Amber L. Horan from Bridgewater State University.