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Sexy or competent? You can’t be both on Facebook

Are you smart or slutty? What your Facebook profile picture says about you.

It’s what every woman who has ever debated going “all the way” on a first date knows to be true: Too often we have to make the impossible, zero-sum choice between being seen as desirable or respectable. Now, researchers have discovered even your Facebook profile pictures aren’t immune from this asinine scrutiny.

A recent study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Culture titled “The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus non-sexualized Facebook profile photo” reveals technology hasn’t done much to modernize our attitudes towards women and sexuality. Researchers showed 58 teenaged girls and 60 young women an identical Facebook profile with two very different pictures. The first showed a girl dressed in a revealing, high-slit prom gown complete with garter. The second featured the same woman dressed casually, and more modestly, with a buttoned-up shirt and scarf.

“We asked women and girls to evaluate not just how competent the girl in the Facebook profile was, but also whether they thought she was pretty and whether they thought she could be a friend,” co-author of the study and University of California at Santa Cruz researcher Eileen L. Zurbriggen says. “Those who saw the more sexualized profile of the woman not only judged her less competent, but also less pretty and less likely to be a friend of theirs. So physical and social attractiveness to other women and girls appears to be impacted by a sexualized portrayal, not just perceived competence.”

So what’s new about these findings? Women all over the world know that the amount of sex appeal they display already affects how they are perceived by the world, even children.

“A number of previous studies have shown that when women are depicted in sexualized ways — like wearing revealing clothing — that they are perceived as less competent, less intelligent, and having less self-respect,” co-author of the study and University of California at Santa Cruz researcher Eileen L. Zurbriggen says. “It’s true even for 5th-grade girls, according to one study.”

What’s different about the findings is that on widely used social media sites like Facebook, images are frighteningly easily to find and can even take on a digital life of their own. Before social media, you could easily navigate between your sexy native self at Coachella and your tailored management self in the boardroom. Today, anyone with Google can pull up an entire world of images that you might not even know exist.

“Yes, some women have always presented themselves in a sexualized way, but if they wanted to be perceived as more competent, they could switch their presentation and would not have to worry about a digital trail that could never be erased,” Zurbriggen adds.

Her advice for navigating the Facebook picture minefield probably isn’t much different than what your mother would give you: Be careful about what you post and know people are judging you based on what they see: good, bad, sexy or otherwise. And don’t forget to show people who you really are on the inside.

“Think twice about posting revealing or sexualized pictures, if they will be viewed by people who will be judging you on your competence,” Zurbriggen says. “Instead, consider posting pictures that highlight your identity, your interests and your activities. These give a more holistic picture of the real you — who you are as a person, rather than just how sexy you look.”

For healthy, red-blooded gals looking for a little love, think about more narrow social media sites designed for more anonymity. There are even apps like SnapChat that destroy your… shall we say, less professional… sexy texts and images as soon as they’re viewed.

No, it’s not fair. Women continue to be judged by an impossible Madonna/Whore complex standard by society that dictates we are only either allowed to be sexy or smart, slutty or savvy, attractive or substantial. Until those attitudes change, women need to think about their image like a public relations professional and maintain their various social media sites accordingly. Until then, can we all start to take it a little easier on each other? A little less slut shaming and a little more love? It would be a start.

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