The science behind sexy selfies

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
  • Science has taken a deep look at the sexy selfie.
  • The Australian researchers find the habit is part of a complex social and evolutionary game.
  • It’s all about competitiveness and status anxiety.

Why take a sexy selfie and post it on social media?

A study by the University of NSW shows women tend to sexualise themselves in environments with greater economic inequality rather than where they might be oppressed because of their gender.

The researchers analysed tens of thousands of social media posts across 113 countries, tracking selfies and noting if they were tagged sexy or hot.

“We then looked at where in the world these things happened most,” says lead author Dr Khandis Blake from UNSW Science’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“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.

“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 gender inequality is rife.”

The findings, published in journal PNAS, are consistent across different geographic locations, even after taking into account other factors such as population size, human development and internet access.

The researchers say income inequality increases competitiveness and status anxiety 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.

“Rightly or wrongly, in today’s environment, looking sexy can generate large returns, economically, socially, and personally,” says Blake.

“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.”

The researchers then found the same pattern in spending in other appearance-enhancing areas such as beauty salons and clothing stores.

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,” says Blake.

“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 women 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 maximise her lot in life, just like everyone.”

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