Sexy Selfies Make Other Women Dislike You

And might even hurt your career, according to new research.

In May, research from sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton confirmed what many of us had long suspected: Society’s biggest slut-shamers are rich college girls.

A few weeks later, my friend Jonny passed along, in a sort of generic plea on behalf of men, a prime example of such female-on-female slut-shaming in a sex guide from Miriam Grossman, M.D., of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, which warned:

Don’t fall for it. It’s easy to forget, but the characters on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Sex in the City” are not real. In real life, Meredith and Carrie would have warts or herpes. They’d likely be on Prozac or Zoloft. Today a woman cannot have so many partners without paying a price.

In this week’s edition of Woman-on-Woman Enforcement of the Sexual Double Standard, we have more well-intentioned research from a female academic trying to prove to girls that portraying yourself as too “sexy”—surprise!—endangers your reputation with other women, and might even endanger your job.

Oregon State University psychology professor Elizabeth Daniels, using a highly scientific methodology derived directly from the concept of the court of public opinion, found that 118 women and girls were more likely to judge other women with sexy Facebook profile photos as “less physically and socially attractive and less competent to perform tasks” compared to those with more modest pics.

Although this assessment of competence concerned social peers rather than work colleagues, Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post made the obvious extrapolation: Sexy selfies make other women dislike you, and might even hurt your career.

Her thinking brings to mind the 2013 court case of a dental assistant who was fired, at the insistence of the dentist’s wife, for being “too attractive.” Iowa’s Supreme Court upheld the firing on grounds of her “irresistible attraction” threatening the dentist’s marriage.

Now, if empowered young women have learned anything from Sheryl Sandberg, it’s that Career Is Everything. So what’s a sex-positive, feminist woman who also wants to be seen as professional and competent by her female peers supposed to do?

Well, probably not post sexy selfies.

—Says the woman who has argued repeatedly (in columns like this one and this one) that oversharing is a political statement and an act of feminist subversion.

As the (now ex) girlfriend of a pornographer, I made my peace a long time ago with the knowledge that photos of my naked body (not labeled as mine, at least) pop up occasionally in Internetland. But that doesn’t mean that the level of social mortification I suffered was negligible when, for instance, I accidentally dropped my FetLife profile picture on my Facebook wall for about 45 seconds, prompting friends to instantly start inboxing me with messages along the lines of “What the hell is that, Sam?!”

I wouldn’t wish such mortification on any of you, no matter how much you believe sexual double standards are destructive. Unfortunately, as long as women are interdependent on other people, society’s reflexive, defensive tarnishing of women who openly embrace their sexuality will have consequences. And I really don’t want those consequences to compromise your job.

Sadly, as long as the “appropriate” boundaries for sexuality, romance, and child-rearing are delineated by the institution of the monogamous nuclear family, such slut-shaming will likely remain particularly vicious among other women (as Rachel Kramer Bussel’s recent piece “My Boobs Are Not A Threat To Your Marriage” attests). In other words, if you’re worried that baby daddy might stray and fling you into penniless single-motherhood, policing other women’s sexuality can seem like an act of self-preservation.

So for those of you whose job and/or mission in life involves more than simply trying to overturn sexual double standards, your personal calculus of how much sexuality to display publicly should by all means be determined by pragmatism rather than principle. So, to reiterate: It’s not a great career move to post your sexy selfies on Facebook instead of OK Cupid.

But please don’t be part of the problem (like this girl). Observe your own reactions to other women’s sexiness. If you are in a position of leadership over other women, ask yourself if sexual double standards are blurring your perceptions of their competence. Such personal reflectiveness may not eliminate sexual double standards in the workplace, but it’s certainly a start.

To sum up, I steal an apropos response from Rachel Kramer Bussel to the blogger who found other women’s Facebook sexiness so threatening to her marriage:

I wish … you’d recognize the ways that you are judging other women, not to mention your husband, unfairly. Focus on yourself and the uniqueness of your relationship, rather than what other people are doing on social media.

Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

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