“I’d have way more Instagram followers if I posted bikini selfies. And I was a hot woman,” my boyfriend joked—only, it’s most certainly true. Wouldn’t we all, I thought. Using sex to sell is the oldest trick in the book. Because it works. But for women, it’s not as simple as it seems. Since the beginning of history, women who display themselves as sexy have been judged—or worse—and now science is parsing out exactly how our brains respond to images like bikini selfies. And it’s still complicated.
Sitting around a holiday gathering of friends recently, we all cringed as my friend shared the awkward feeling of seeing suggestive bikini selfies of her new in-law pop up in her Facebook feed. What’s the proper response to that? I mean, a woman’s body shouldn’t be offensive, in and of itself. But as women, we still deal with cultural fallout when we expose ourselves. And in those moments when it might feel like it’s just us and our camera phone, we sometimes forget that for every Facebook friend and Instagram follower we have, there’s actually a pair of human eyes that see—and can’t unsee—what we put out there.
Imagine the sea of that young woman’s hundreds of Facebook friends and family crowded in her room to watch as she took the photo: Would she really be comfortable with that? The problem is, even if we believe we should be free to wear whatever we want, and express ourselves however we please, we still face real-world consequences and judgments for what we put out there.
But shouldn’t a woman still be able to be respected as an intelligent equal to men even if she looks great in a bikini or minidress? The key beat here is “should.” A study by Princeton psychologists recently compared men’s perceptions of scantily clad women, scantily clad men, and fully clothed men and women. They scanned the men’s brains while they looked at the photos of scantily clad women, and found that “…this memory correlated with activation in part of the brain that is a pre-motor, having intentions to act on something, so it was as if they immediately thought about how they might act on these bodies.” The data allows the researchers to look at it as scientific metaphor, the researcher said. “That is, they are reacting to these photographs as people react to objects.”
Another recent study that tracked men’s responses to images of women in various states of dress and with different croppings (only face, more body, full body) found that “an increased visibility of flesh led to a decreased perception of agency (mental ability, self-control) and a heightened tendency to view the women as ‘feeling’ creatures, beings of low intelligence mainly defined by emotions, pleasure and pain.”
So now this is a matter not of morals, but of science? Where’s the line between expressing your personality, being yourself and putting forth your most attractive side, and triggering someone to view you as an object? And, as women, are we responsible for the way others perceive us?
From my casual social media observations, I gather that a number of suggestive-ish photos are posted intentionally to garner attention or male approval. Of course, we all want people to think we’re attractive, and it always feels good to see that “Like” count tick up—note my opening sentence. But that opens a whole other can of worms, because other recent studies show that—men aside—women judge other women more harshly for posting sexy photos of themselves. When it comes to dabbling in sexy on social media, it seems we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
I’d venture to guess that most of us would like to be seen as the multi-faceted, intelligent women we are and not as sluts, or objects. But does that mean swathing ourselves in turtlenecks and ankle-length skirts? Or being completely visibly anonymous online? That’s an age-old slippery-slope argument that starts to shift men’s responsibilities for their own thoughts and actions onto women. And, no matter our motivations or beliefs, others are still going to jump to their own conclusions. It seems like even choosing a Facebook profile photo is a complicated dance between putting our best foot forward, expressing ourselves and fitting into social norms. And what if those social norms are bunk? What’s a thinking girl to do?
[Photo by Joel Nilsson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]