SCIENCE
07/17/2014 07:47 am ET | Updated Jul 17, 2014

Young Women With Sexy Social Media Photos Seen As Less Competent By Peers, Study Shows

It seems like there's just no way to win the social media game. After all, that super-hot selfie you posted online may make you feel good and help you show off a little -- but it may have some negative consequences too.

A provocative new study suggests that young women who post sexy or revealing photos of themselves on social media are viewed as less attractive and competent by their female peers. Ouch.

"Numerous studies have shown that when women are depicted in sexualized ways (revealing clothing, provocative poses), they are perceived as less intelligent, competent and capable," study co-author Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told the Los Angeles Times. "But this is one of the first studies to show that not only do other women and girls perceive the women in non-sexualized photographs as more competent, they're also seen as prettier and more desirable as a friend."

In the study, Zurbriggen and Dr. Elizabeth Daniels, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, created two fake Facebook profiles for a fictitious 20-year-old woman named Amanda Johnson. The profiles were practically identical except for the main profile photo.

One profile photo showed "Amanda" wearing a low-cut red dress with a slit up one leg to mid-thigh and a visible garter belt; the other profile photo showed "Amanda" wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and a scarf draped around her neck, covering her chest.

The researchers then randomly asked 118 teen girls and young women (ages 13-25) to look at one of the profiles and rate "Amanda" on her competence, friendliness, and attractiveness.

What did the researchers find? In all three areas, the non-sexy profile scored higher, indicating that those who viewed that photo found "Amanda" in that profile to be prettier, more likely to be a good friend, and more competent.

But posting a non-sexy profile may make women miss out on "social rewards," like attention from potential romantic partners, Daniels said in a written statement.

The takeway? It seems to be a "no-win" situation for young women who want to post "selfies," leaving Daniels with more questions than answers.

"Why is it we focus so heavily on girls’ appearances?" Daniels, who was on faculty at Oregon State University while conducting this research, said in the statement. "What does this tell us about gender? Those conversations should be part of everyday life."

The study published online in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture on July 14, 2014.

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