The Problem With Your Sexy Profile Picture

by Amy McCarthy

Women have always had to deal with a certain set of stereotypes related to their physical appearance. The “dumb blonde” trope is definitely not new, and there is evidence that shows that men and women alike are guilty of assessing competency and morality based on a person’s physical appearance. Unfortunately, new research shows that a woman’s sex appeal may make her peers think she’s less intelligent.

A study published today in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture asked over 100 young women aged 17-25 to review two Facebook profiles of a fictional 20 year old girl named “Amanda.” The profiles included the usual “likes” for a young woman — Lady Gaga, Twilight, and The Notebook. The only difference was the profile photo. In one profile, Amanda wore a red prom dress with a thigh-high split and visible garter belt. In the other, she had on a more conservative jeans-and-t-shirt ensemble.

Researchers then asked the women to evaluate Amanda’s physical and social attractiveness – whether or not they found her “pretty,” or if they thought Amanda could be their friend. They also asked if the fictional Facebook photo looked like someone who would be competent in completing a task. In all three categories, the conservatively dressed profile photo scored higher than the scantily clad.

“Girls and young women are in a 'no-win' situation when it comes to their Facebook photos,” said Elizabeth Daniels, a researcher at Oregon State University who led the study. “Those who post sexy photos may risk negative reactions from their peers, but those who post more wholesome photos may lose out on social rewards, including attention from boys and men.”

Daniels’ advice for young women is to “select social media photos that showcase their identity rather than her appearance, such as one from a trip or one that highlights participation in a sport or hobby,” which is a big pile of hopefully unintentional slut-shaming. There are certainly perceptions that come along with photos of young women in bikinis or tight dresses, but young women shouldn’t feel like they have to hide their bodies in order to make other people think they are intelligent or competent.

Until we change the idea that “sexy = stupid,” no amount of putting on more clothing is going to do anything to alter the mindsets of people who would devalue a woman’s intelligence based on the amount of clothing that she is wearing. The onus isn’t on young women to change this ass-backwards and harmful mentality, but on a culture that refuses to acknowledge that women can be sexy and smart as a whip at the same time.