New study reveals why women take sexy selfies

August 27, 2018 by Isabelle Dubach, University of New South Wales
New study reveals why women take sexy selfies
Credit: University of New South Wales

A new UNSW study has revealed the science behind sexy selfies, showing that women tend to sexualise themselves in environments with greater economic inequality, rather than where they might be oppressed because of their gender.

In the study – published in prestigious journal PNAS – the team analysed tens of thousands of across 113 countries. Lead author Dr. Khandis Blake from UNSW Science's School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences says her team tracked posts where people had taken selfies and then noted that they were tagged sexy, hot or similar.

"We then looked at where in the world these things happened most. The number one way that psychologists usually look at women's preoccupation with their appearance is that it happens because of patriarchal pressures – that women live in societies that value their appearance more than their other qualities. The argument is usually that when you see sexualisation, you see disempowerment," Dr. Blake says.

"What we found instead is that women are more likely to invest time and effort into posting sexy selfies online in places where economic inequality is rising, and not in places where men hold more societal power and is rife."

The findings are consistent across different geographic locations, even after taking into account and controlling for other factors that could influence patterns, like population size, human development and internet access.

The researchers say that increases competitiveness and status anxiety amongst people at all levels of the social hierarchy, making them sensitive to where they sit on the social ladder and wanting them to do better than others.

"That income inequality is a big predictor of sexy selfies suggests that sexy selfies are a marker of social climbing among women that tracks economic incentives in the local environment," Dr. Blake says.

"Rightly or wrongly, in today's environment, looking sexy can generate large returns, economically, socially, and personally."

The researchers then found the exact same pattern in real-world spending in other appearance-enhancing areas.

"What we found in more than 1000 different economic areas in the US when looking at women's spending in beauty salons and clothing stores is that income inequality is also predicting this type of spending," Dr. Blake says.

The researchers say that the findings make sense from an evolutionary point of view.

"In evolutionary terms, these kinds of behaviours are completely rational, even adaptive. The basic idea is that the way people compete for mates, and the things they do to put themselves at the top of the hierarchy are really important. This is where this research fits in – it's all about how are competing and why they're competing.

"So, when a young woman adjusts her bikini provocatively with her phone at the ready, don't think of her as vacuous or as a victim. Think of her as a strategic player in a complex social and evolutionary game. She's out to maximize her lot in life, just like everyone," Dr. Blake concludes.

Explore further: New tool using Facebook data shows worldwide gender gap

More information: Khandis R. Blake et al. Income inequality not gender inequality positively covaries with female sexualization on social media, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1717959115

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19 comments

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julianpenrod
2.4 / 5 (8) Aug 27, 2018
How many selfies actually make it into areas of societal competition? Many stay in someone's computer. And, if they show them only to friends on social media, where is the likelihood that will lead to a better, higher paying job? If the women are in lower economic circles, it can be asked who will see their selfies to offer them a better job? It can be said that there is a tendency by many not to want to look bad when they have their picture taken. It can be said the "researchers" would likely oppose such suggestions as that, for many women, looking sexy makes them "feel good about themselves".
sparcboy
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 27, 2018
Not PC conclusions.
TheMuffinMan
4 / 5 (4) Aug 27, 2018
You mean to tell me that it wasn't the patriarchy or society's fault that women try to maximize their sex appeal online on social media for social status and money? Color me "shocked"
snoosebaum
2.2 / 5 (5) Aug 27, 2018
They study this ?
rrwillsj
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 27, 2018
Well, if I had to choose whether I could study women? Or study the wethers commenting above?

Viva La Femme!
Old_C_Code
2.7 / 5 (7) Aug 27, 2018
"...She's out to maximize her lot in life, just like everyone," Dr. Blake concludes.

A sensible conclusion.
NoStrings
2.5 / 5 (6) Aug 27, 2018
Why do academics focus so much on social status? Perhaps because they have none?

As a result - trivializing about every social aspect they analyze. True, there are evolutionary reasons somewhere underneath everything we do. But human mind and motivations are so much more complex, and individual, and unique, even though they may add up to a bland statistic if you analyze one million of selfies.

The most basic example - the centuries old gas pressure laws. Each individual molecule has a very complex motion and dynamics. Statistically it adds up to pressure. Explaining everything by pressure as a final goal of the molecules is not explaining it, but rather explaining away the complex phenomenon. You can fill in remaining the details of the molecule analogy if you feel pedantic, but you see my drift, I hope.
Sometimes models help to explain things better, and other times they are doing just the opposite, while giving basis for deficient conclusions.
Whart1984
Aug 27, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Phil100a
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 27, 2018
Interesting. If you look into social media, there is a huge attempt to increase status, so any woman - regardless of her socioeconomic status - who feels "inferior" for whatever reason, may want to generate as many selfies as possible,even if only for personal use.

Remember, everyone has an "ideal" mental image of what they think is attractive". Taking a selfie gives the selfie-taker all the control re: posing and final result. In fact, one might hypothesize that the more selfies a person takes, the more "inferior" they feel relative to others, regrdless of social class.

One might also consider this same phenomenon in men, relative quantity of selfie-taking.

In fact, selfie-taking, in-and-of-itself, regardless of status, is probably a self-esteem, self-assurance, and imagined self-status booster.
Whart1984
Aug 27, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
ddaye
not rated yet Aug 27, 2018
They study this ?
Iif you were in the business of marketing various products or services to women, there's a good chance you'd find ways to use this kind of study.
ddaye
not rated yet Aug 27, 2018
How many selfies actually make it into areas of societal competition?
It's probably more useful as an indicator or linked to other aspects of behavior. Every last thing about personalities and individual or group behavior is of interest to some corporations somewhere, and to any other institution that wants to take advantage or influence society.
Thorium Boy
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 28, 2018
How can anyone take MeToo accusations at face-value when what people have known for 5000 years has again been proven by researchers? Not to say many don't have weight, but I wonder how many accusations are just vindictivness at a failed attempt to capture a well-to-do mate?
flueninsky
2.8 / 5 (9) Aug 28, 2018
Selfies on a Stick
It's hilarious, especially using Kings as their backdrop, it's all the rage from these tourists, they gather giggling with a mobile on a stick, getting those Facebook pouts just right for yet the ultimate selfies,
It's good fun and youthful with vigour, it's needed in today's society – it livens up those hallowed streets and complements the violinist on his tight rope his as he violins his concerto's outside the market square in front of the Guildhall
The selfie phys.org has chosen is gorgeous
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 28, 2018
Sexualized - what a stupid word. The female tropical animal seeks to mate all the time. It's how the puny, slow, defenseless little spe managed to survived. And in all our development our repro rate has not changed.

So in order to limit growth the tropical human animal must be desexualized, and currently the only way to do this is culturally.

Luckily, since we are domesticated animals we can be taught all sorts of tricks, like how to feel ashamed when a woman wants to check the status of her physical appearance for the purpose of attracting mates.
flueninsky
2.8 / 5 (9) Aug 28, 2018
Selfies on a Stick
The selfie phys.org has chosen is gorgeous

You are only young and gorgeous once, for obvious reasons. So there is no harm in these delightful selfies, as they bolster nature's reason for existence. Just take delight in what nature has created, and take heart that nature has joined the electronic revolution!
cgsperling
5 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2018
Women instinctively hate being told that they should dress more conservatively, because THAT is the true "disempowerment".
Whart1984
Aug 28, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Moltvic
not rated yet Aug 29, 2018
Scientist 1: "If only we could get paid to look at sexy selfies all day..."
Scientist 2: "Haha, if only.... Wait a minute!"

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