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Research Blog: Judgments of self-sexualization on Facebook, or, too sexy to be smart

By Jenn Chmielewski

It’s that time of year when I start seeing photo after photo on Facebook of people vacationing in awesome (warm) locations. While I am still cold in New York City, I see them lounging on beautiful beaches in bikinis or partying like rock stars in crop tops at Coachella. I will admit, as I sift through Facebook in my pajamas, I start to get a little jealous – and a little judgmental. Some of those bikini shots on the beach seem pretty sexualized. When it looks like a Kardashian directed a photo shoot, I start to turn up my nose a bit. The feminist in me knows this isn’t right though. I mean, really, the media is constantly telling us that we should be focused on looking attractive all the time, so it’s no wonder young women sometimes sexualize themselves in an effort to look sexy. I don’t always agree with what that definition of “sexy” should be, but the pressure to look the part affects me too. I don’t want to have to have full make-up on at the beach or crawl around in the sand while a friend captures it on camera, for instance. But I also won’t post a picture where I feel like my hair doesn’t look right or my eyes are closed or my belly is sticking out just a little too much… So why should I judge how young women on Facebook are spending their time on a beautiful beach? Does that make them less feminist than me or less smart than me, just because they want to portray themselves in a more sexualized way than I am comfortable doing myself?

All of this made me wonder how other girls and young women perceive self-sexualizing photos on social media. We know that buying into the sexualized media ideal can have negative consequences, from body dissatisfaction and eating disorders to limited career aspirations. But how does it affect what other people think about us? It turns out that researchers Elizabeth Daniels and Eileen Zurbriggen[1] actually just did a cool experiment on this topic. They asked adolescent girls and young adult women to view a Facebook profile of a 20-year old white, blonde-haired woman named “Amanda.” Each participant saw Amanda dressed in either a non-sexualized way or a sexualized way. Non-sexualized Amanda was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt with a scarf around her neck in her profile photo. Sexualized Amanda was wearing a low-cut red dress with a slit up the leg to the mid-thigh and a visible garter belt in her profile photo. After participants looked at one of these Facebook profiles for Amanda, they were asked a bunch of questions about her, like how attractive they thought she was, how much they would want to be friends with her, and how smart they thought she was.

If you have ever had thoughts mine when you look at sexualized Facebook profiles, you probably will not be surprised by what these researchers found. It turns out that both teenage girls and young adult women who viewed the sexualized profile of Amanda rated her as less physically attractive, socially attractive, and competent, than the participants who looked at the non-sexualized Facebook profile. In other words, people who saw Amanda in the sexualized condition were less likely to find her attractive, were less likely to want to be friends with her, and were less likely to think she could handle tasks competently. They had all these negative attitudes just based on what she was wearing.

So where does this leave us in a sexualized world where we are told our looks matter more than anything else, but we are judged when we try to look sexy in a sexualized way (and we judge others for doing the same). It sure feels like we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Look, I could say that the lesson of this study is that young women shouldn’t buy into the sexualized ideal and post those racy Facebook photos because they will be judged negatively by other girls and women for it. But as a young woman and a feminist I know it’s not that simple. Girls and women who post sexualized photos are not the problem. We should not be force-fed the idea that dressing in a sexualized way is the only way to be sexy. And we should be more understanding of the pressures we are all under. Some of us want to reject the system that encourages us to self-sexualize but we shouldn’t reject girls when they buy into it sometimes.

Now, I’m not exactly saying I’m going to start hitting the ‘Like’ button when I see my acquaintances in their Victoria’s Secret-style photo shoots. But I will check myself and my nose turning. Because I know where the desire to look that way comes from. And hey, who knows, maybe it feels good to some people too! I’ve never crawled around on the sand – who am I to knock it? So when I see these photos, I will also start reminding myself to be a little less judgmental and a little more supportive of the multitude of ways that girls and women can find their own sexy.

 

[1] Daniels, E. A., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2016). The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus nonsexualized Facebook profile photograph. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5, 2-14.

 

RESEARCH BLOG: The Hidden Cost of Sexualization

By Kimberly Belmonte

Every morning when I get off the subway, staring at me are billboard-sized Victoria’s Secret ads featuring models sexily posing in lingerie. These huge ads are just one of the many sexualized images of women that are in my face every single every day! Usually, I roll my eyes at these kinds of images, but the other day, I found myself wondering if they were getting under my skin.

You see, I was getting ready to give a talk about my own research and those “speaking in front of a crowd” jitters were kicking in. Now, when I get nervous, my brain goes blank and I needed to review my notes to help me get over my blank-brain-syndrome.   I had twenty minutes until speech time but it happened to be really rainy out and the moisture was doing bonkers things to my hair (curly-haired girls, you know the struggle).  I was torn about what to do: I did want to look professional, but going over my notes was also a priority. When presented with a challenge that is both appearance-focused (e.g., needing to look professional) and skills-focused (e.g., needing to speak clearly) it sometimes is hard to know which to prioritize – and sometimes I feel like all the sexualized images I see all the time make it even harder. It made me wonder if girls who have really internalized the sexiness ideals that we constantly see in advertising images might be more likely to focus on their appearance than skills?

So why did I think my beauty vs. brain dilemma was at all related to those billboards? Well, research shows that the constant bombardment of sexualized images shapes the way we women and girls experience and think about our own bodies. After seeing sexualized images, many girls start to internalize the idea that it’s really important that they themselves look sexy. Researchers call this internalized sexualization—the belief that your worth is tied to your sexiness or physical sexual attractiveness.   But being overly concerned about looking sexy can be a real brain bummer—in previous blogs, we’ve written about research that found being focused on your body’s appearance makes it harder to concentrate on a task.

Researchers Sarah McKenney and Rebecca Bigler[1] wanted to know how internalized sexualization (that is, adopting the sexiness ideal) related to girls academic achievement. In one study, they found that the more important girls thought it was to be considered sexually attractive, the lower their actual grades in math, science, and social studies tended to be. Now, even though that’s some pretty good evidence that being concerned with looking sexy is related to lower academic achievement, they wanted to try and understand what might be behind this relationship.

So McKenney and Bigler devised a genius study where they asked girls to give a fake news report. I mean, have you seen the news lately? It seems like all of the female newscasters are ultra-sexified (picture long blown out hair, TONS of makeup, etc.). But being a news reporter isn’t all about looks—newscasters, even the sexified ones, must be intelligent and able to communicate complicated information in an easy-breezy sort of way. The researchers wondered whether preparing to do this sort of task—the kind in which both appearance and brainpower matter—would result in girls spending more time prepping the way they look or prepping the information they would be presenting. They also wondered whether the way girls prep for the newscast would be connected to girls’ levels of internalized sexualization.

megyn-kelly-21

So check this out: Girls were told they would be participating in a study on broadcast journalism and that they would be videotaped giving a fake newscast about a new animal species in Indonesia. The researchers directed the girls to a room where they gave them two things they could use to prepare: the broadcast script and makeup. To do well delivering a news report, girls would have to read a script clearly and smoothly, and pronounce difficult vocabulary words. Each girl was told that she would only have five minutes to prepare—but they weren’t given any direction as to how they should prepare. Now, here’s the clever part: unknown to the girls, the researchers secretly videotaped them in the preparation room (don’t worry, girls later had the option of having their data deleted if they didn’t feel comfortable with that).

The researchers then watched these secret videos to see how much time each girl spent preparing her appearance (e.g., applying makeup) and preparing the material for the presentation (e.g., reading or practicing the script). After recording the fake news broadcast, the girls also completed a survey that measured their internalized sexualization, so the researchers could figure out whether beliefs about the importance of looking sexy had anything to do with this.

And guess what they found? Girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization were more likely to spend a lot of time putting on makeup than practicing the script. At crunch time, girls who thought looking sexy was really important were more focused on how they would look on camera than how they would perform during the intellectual task.

It might make sense that girls who thought looking sexy was really important prioritized looks over performance. But what do these findings mean for all of us? This study shows us the hidden cost of focusing on looking sexy –when we do, we’re less likely to focus on being competent. And this can have huge implications for women and girls doing well in school and in the workplace where our actual performance (and not just our looks) really matter.

So what can we do about all the times girls and women choose to focus on appearance instead of studying (or another intellectual task)? First, let’s remind ourselves about what we lose when we focus too much on appearance and refocus on what really matters! For example, when I had so little time to prepare at the conference, perfect hair and fresh lipstick would have meant forgetting my speech, so I mostly focused on my notes (and yes, my speech was great—#humblebrag). But let’s also push back against all those people and messages that tell women and girls it’s important to look sexy. Instead, let’s emphasize the amazing things girls and women accomplish, rather than how they look!

[1] McKenney, S. J. & Bigler, R. S. (2014). High Heels, Low Grades: Internalized Sexualization and Academic Orientation Among Adolescent Girls. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 30-36.

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Research Blog: The Best Little (Queer Brown) Girl in the World

by Allison Cabana

Once upon a time, I was a 15-year-old queer brown girl with an eating disorder. I wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last, but perhaps my experience is a more common one than people think. Let me back up for a second.

In my ninth grade health class, we watched a particularly memorable made-for-TV movie: The Best Little Girl In The World (1981). I may not remember everything from health class, but I definitely remember this movie and how it made me think about eating disorders. The movie—classic that it is—is about a teenage girl who, despite being “the best little girl in the world,” develops an eating disorder in order to cope with the pressures and troubles of her life. Casey, the protagonist in the movie, is a white, heterosexual, “conventionally feminine,” girl who is a student in good standing in her high school. She cheerleads; she dances; she gets all the answers correct on tests. She also has an eating disorder. The movie was pretty stereotypical about who was supposed to, or even allowed to, have eating disorders (and then get help for them). From watching the movie, it seemed to me that only cisgender, white, feminine girls had eating disorders—and that all girls were heterosexual. I didn’t fit the stereotype, but that certainly didn’t stop me from having an eating disorder.

Feet on scale

As people, we’re complex. We identify with different races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and social classes, among many other social categories. A person’s gender identity is the gender they identify with. Sometimes a person’s gender identity matches the gender that they were assigned at birth – these people are referred to as cisgender people. Sometimes a person’s gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth – these people are referred to as transgender people. And some people prefer not to identify as men or women at all, and these people are sometimes referred to as genderqueer or non-binary (for more information, check out this helpful resource). So, with all this awesome variation among people, wouldn’t it make sense that we all could be susceptible to disordered eating?

Eating disorders are persistent health conditions that center on damaging food consumption habits. While related, disordered eating is not always diagnosed, but it also has to do with harmful relationships to food. In this blog, while I do not advocate eating disorders or disordered eating, I do want to examine whether we are fully supporting all of the people who may struggle with this. As a queer, brown young woman, I have a hunch that people from all sorts of different and/or overlapping groups do have, or have had, or sometimes have and sometimes don’t have, disordered eating or eating disorders. But is there actually any research out there about eating disorders among queer or trans people? Am I making this up?

Apparently, I’m not. A group of researchers had an inkling that the stereotypes about eating disorders didn’t encompass everybody affected, and they set out to prove it. In their study, Elizabeth Diemer and her colleagues[1] asked college students across the United States to fill out a survey that asked questions about their gender identity, sexual orientation, eating disorder diagnoses, and disordered eating behavior. Their study was different from past studies in its high number of participants who identified themselves as non-straight (also referred to in research as sexual minority) and transgender individuals. Not only does this mean that these people were included in the study about eating disorders, but by also including straight and/or cisgender girls and boys, they were able to make some comparisons. What Diemer and her colleagues really wanted to know was how often sexual minority and transgender people experience eating disorders compared to their straight and cisgender peers.

What did they find? Just as I thought, their study suggests that eating disorders do affect people across all different identities. The team of researchers report that transgender and sexual minority college students have just as high rates of disordered eating as their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. Of course, this doesn’t mean that cisgender and heterosexual people don’t also experience disordered eating, but it does mean that we can’t forget that eating disorders—thought for a long time to only affect white, straight, cisgender, teenage girls—can and do affect us all.

I’ve been thinking about what this research study means to me now, and what it might have meant for me as a teenager—especially as a teenage girl who was brown and queer. What would I have given at that age to know that I was not alone? To know that my struggle was just as real as the struggle straight, cisgender, white “best little girls in the world” faced? Sometimes, I think we underestimate how important it is to make a problem visible. I watched that movie in my health class and the stereotypical representation of eating disorders I saw made me feel like my own experience wasn’t quite true—even though it absolutely was (and is). This study is so important because it shows the world that eating disorders and disordered eating are problems faced by all sorts of people. We can’t ignore it anymore. And I must admit, I’m already dreaming about the new research questions this study brings up. For example, do transgender and genderqueer people experience eating disorders for the same reasons as cisgender people? How and why people are affected by eating disorders at such high rates are important questions that future research (and maybe even us as future researchers!) can and should start investigating. But I think today, one thing we can do is to make sure that we recognize the struggles that we all might face, and to support all of our peers in recovery. Because no one deserves to feel invisible.

 

 

 

[1] Diemer, E. W., Grant, J. D., Munn-Chernoff, M.A., Patterson, D.A., Duncan, A. E. (2015). Gender identity, sexual orientation, and eating-related pathology in a national sample of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 57, 144-149.