Study suggests why women take sexy selfies

The science behind sexy selfies.

Girl taking sexy selfies
Credit: University of New South Wales

Women live in societies that value their appearance more than their other qualities. The argument is usually that when you see sexualization, you see disempowerment. Women are more likely to invest time and effort into posting sexy selfies.

In a new study by the UNSW scientists have disclosed the answer to why women take sexy selfies. They found that women tend to sexualize themselves in environments with greater economic inequality.

For this study, scientists analyzed tens of thousands of social media posts across 113 countries. They tracked posts where people had taken selfies and then noted that they were tagged sexy, hot or similar.

Lead author Dr. Khandis Blake from UNSW Science’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences said, “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 sexualization, 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.”

Scientists found the same results 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.

Scientists noted, “income inequality 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. Rightly or wrongly, in today’s environment, looking sexy can generate large returns, economically, socially, and personally.”

Dr. Blake said, “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. In evolutionary terms, these kinds of behaviors 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 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 maximize her lot in life, just like everyone.”

The study is published in the prestigious journal PNAS.