Do Sexy Profile Pics Make You Appear Less Competent?

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sexyPHOTOGRAPHED BY LAUREN PERLSTEIN.
There’s a reason Tina Fey’s Mean Girls ascended to the rank of cult classic with meteoric speed — and we're not just talking about Fey’s rapier wit or the stellar casting. The truth speaks to us. Young girls can be vicious and judgy, especially during that awkward pubescent stage when everyone’s just trying to figure themselves out and defenses are on high alert. Then came social media.

In the age of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, there’s enormous pressure on young girls to put their best selfie forward and invite peer review with (literally) outstretched arms. Of course, there are a whole host of issues associated with chronic selfie-taking: You constantly take yourself out of social interaction, you feel a need to be camera-ready at all times, you totally fabricate your virtual persona based on what you perceive as cool, and so forth.

Now, a study from Oregon State University shows that girls in their teens and 20s who post provocative pics on social media platforms are viewed as less physically attractive, less socially appealing, and less competent. "A shocking observation," said no one ever.

Elizabeth Daniels and Eileen L. Zurbriggen, the authors of the study (entitled “The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus non-sexualized Facebook profile photo”) created two mock Facebook profiles for the fictitious Amanda Johnson, a 20-year old with a penchant for Lady Gaga, Twilight, The Notebook, and other “age-appropriate” cultural phenomena. The sole difference between "Amanda's" two accounts — as you may have gleaned from the title of the research — lay in the profile picture. In the “sexualized” photo, “Amanda” wears a red dress with a plunging neckline and thigh-high side slit, revealing a hint of garter belt. (Remember: Women in red = threatening.) In the “non-sexualized” photo, the same girl poses for her high-school senior portrait in a laid-back ensemble of jeans, a short-sleeved tee, and a scarf that just so happens to conceal her chest.
R29SexShoot-Shot1-489_LaurenPerstein copyPHOTOGRAPHED BY LAUREN PERLSTEIN.
The researchers randomly assigned each of the experiment’s 118 participants — all girls, 58 of them in high school (age 13 to 18) and 60 of them out of high school (age 17 to 25) — to a profile. The girls then reported the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about Amanda’s physical attractiveness (“I think she is pretty”), social appeal (“I think she could be a friend of mine”), and task competence (“I have confidence in her ability to get a job done”). As expected, modest Amanda beat out vixen Amanda in every category, especially in the area of task competence.

Yes, young women do sometimes focus too much on one another’s appearance. However, as pervasive as social media has become, there is still a distinct line between the Internet and real life. True, we all know colleges and even prospective employers sometimes check up on your Internet presence when evaluating your applications, but they’re more concerned with drug use than cleavage and (hopefully) surpass 13- to 25-year-olds in age and maturity. “Amanda’s” not going to wear her prom dress to an interview; she’s going to wear a suit. Then there’s the fact that living, breathing members of the Facebook community are friends with people they’ve actually met — and thus base their opinions of those people on qualities beyond profile pics. And, if “Amanda” ever gets the feeling that her "friends" are just there to judge, all she has to do is hit “unfriend.”