New Study Reveals Link Between “Sexy Selfies” And Income Inequality

A UNSW study suggests that women take sexy selfies to compete with other women and climb the social ladder in economically unequal environments.

New Study Reveals Link Between

There’s a reason why phones with really good selfie cameras (i.e. front-facing cameras) are more specifically targeted towards the female demographic – it’s because women take more selfies than men do. Just look through the Facebook and Instagram accounts of 3 female and 3 male friends, and you’ll see it’s true (if ever you were in doubt). And it’s not something limited to just the Kardashian-Jenners of the world; women all over take and post selfies. But the next time you see someone posting a selfie (especially a “sexy selfie”), you might want to stop and think about the science behind it, before you comment on it. There’s new research that shows that there’s a legitimate reason why women take selfies, specifically “sexy selfies” – the UNSW study shows that women tend to sexualise themselves in environments with greater economic inequality, rather than where they might be oppressed because of their gender.

There’s been countless academic and journalistic research about selfies – from young women, narcissism, and the selfie phenomenon to research about why women and men take selfies so differently.

In the latest UNSW study – published in the prestigious journal PNAS – the team analysed tens of thousands of social media posts across 113 countries. Lead author Dr. Khandis Blake from UNSW Science’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences says her team tracked posts where people had taken selfies and then noted that they were tagged sexy, hot or similar.

“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 sexualisation, you see disempowerment,” said Dr. Blake.

“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.”

“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 researchers examined the aggregate patterns in 68,562 sexualized self-portrait photographs (i.e. “sexy selfies”) that were shared publicly on Twitter and Instagram and their association with city, county, and cross-national indicators of gender inequality. They then investigated the association between sexy-selfie prevalence and income inequality, positing that sexualization – considered to be a marker of high female competition – is greater in environments in which incomes are unequal and people are preoccupied with relative social standing.

Among the 5,567 US cities and 1,622 US counties that were included in the research, areas with relatively more sexy selfies were more economically unequal but not necessarily more gender oppressive. A similar pattern emerged across 113 countries, particularly within more developed nations. The findings are consistent even after taking into account and controlling for other factors that could influence patterns, like population size, human development, and internet access.

According to the researchers, 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,” said Dr. Blake.

To externally validate their findings, they investigated and confirmed the same pattern in real-world spending as well – economically unequal (but not gender-oppressive) areas in the United States also had greater aggregate sales in goods and services related to female physical appearance enhancement (beauty salons, women’s clothing etc.).

And, according to Dr. Blake and the other researchers, these findings make perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view: “In evolutionary terms, these kinds of behaviours are completely rational, even adaptive. This is where this research fits in – it’s all about how women are competing and why they’re competing.”

“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.”

“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,” Dr. Blake concludes.

Sneha Khale
With a background in Psychology and Criminology, Sneha has spent the past several years working in the travel and tech industries. As a writer and editor, she's most interested in developing content which is at the intersection of pop culture, gender, and contemporary lifestyle. "Don't let your 'to do' list get longer than your Netflix 'to watch' queue," is her philosophy for 2018.

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