A study done by Oregon State University, published in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture, says that women who have sexy profile photos connected to their social media accounts are judged more harshly by their female peers. To reach their findings, researchers tapped a pool of 118 women; 58 teenagers and 60 young adults up to age 25. They created fake profiles for the imaginary “Amanda Johnson,” using different main photos for each. A volunteer provided two images: one, a high school senior portrait and the other, a racy prom picture.
For the class photo, the girl is dressed in a modest outfit, but for prom, the young lady’s showing a lot more skin. Thigh-high slit, garter belt, plunging neckline — the works. Researchers asked participants if they found each girl pretty, if she looked competent and if they would hang out with her. The image with the more modestly dressed girl was better received. The woman in the sexier picture scored lower with women, particularly on the competency front.
Of course, the long-standing patriarchal structures that conceived the Madonna/whore binary are certainly at play here. In our society, “proper” women are discouraged from overtly expressing their sexuality in a public arena. It makes sense that women brought up in this sort of climate might have negative feelings about those who post racy pictures. Women who do are deemed loose, and sometimes their humanity is overlooked completely.
Leighton Meester just penned an article for The Huffington Post discussing the unfair portrayal of her character, Curley’s wife, in the Broadway production of Of Mice and Men. The young woman is referred to as a “tramp” and a “tart” throughout the production and is universally hated by audiences. Leighton notes that the audience erupts into laughter when the men use these sorts of sex-negative slurs against her. Her character is despised, but for no actual reason. Leighton shares excerpts from a letter from the playwright John Steinbeck written to the actress who originally played Curley’s wife to shed some light on the character’s actual past:
“She was told over and over that she must remain a virgin because that was the only way she could get a husband … She only had that one thing to sell and she knew it … She is a nice, kind girl and not a floozy. No man has ever considered her as anything except a girl to try to make … As to her actual sex life — she has had none except with Curley and there has probably been no consummation there since Curley would not consider her gratification and would probably be suspicious if she had any.”
Curley’s wife only appears to be a tart, even though she isn’t — that’s what makes audiences root against her. They have no actual background on her sexual history, they just make an assumption based off some negative comments thrown around by men. It seems a similar thing is happening on social media. It’s impossible to know a person’s sexual history off a profile picture — just as impossible as being able to tell if a woman is prudish just because she’s got on a long-sleeved shirt in an image. Dually, you can’t tell if a woman is smart, trustworthy or friendly based off a simple photo. We make these snap judgements because…well, we’re human, but let’s be real; as women, we should know better. Not every girl is brave enough to post a sexy bikini photo as her main profile picture, but I’m sure all women will agree — sometimes we like to look and feel sexy. There are plenty of girls out there who have been called a “slut” because they wore a short skirt one day or because of their ample cleavage. We all know what it feels like.
Given that the population of the pollsters were teenage and young women, this study poses a wonderful opportunity for women and for feminism/womanism. Oregon State University says the study “underscores the importance of helping children and young people understand the long-term consequences of their online posts,” but there is an opportunity here to un-teach young girls this judgey mindset. Yes, it is important for girls to present themselves in ways that don’t spotlight their sexuality, but from a feminist perspective, it is equally important for young ladies to not see overt displays of sexuality as a sign of a deviant personality.