Let’s Talk About the ‘Selfies-Make-You-Appear-Incompetent’ Study


Illustration by Amy Mastrine

There’s a study making the rounds that finds women perceive other ladies who post “sexy selfies” on social media to be “incompetent.” The takeaway for many is that women should just stop posting selfies — but that’s bullshit. This study is really an opportunity to examine societal attitudes toward femininity and beauty.

The headlines alone are the metaphorical equivalent to throwing gallons of gas on the slut-shaming fire:

Study Proves Your Sexy Selfies Make You Seem Less Attractive and Competent, asserts FitFabFun. How Sexy Selfies Are Making You Lose Friends, warns Yahoo! Sexy Profile Pictures Make Women Look ‘Stupid,’ says MyDailyUK.

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Caitlin Dewey warns women that they should be “listening to [their] peers” if they “want to be taken seriously.” Many commenters have gone so far as to say women need to tone down the sexy selfies if they want to be taken seriously in the workplace.

This message is warped — it assumes sexiness and intelligence can only exist in a dichotomy. It asserts that women must respond by altering their behavior, when in fact it’s time to examine societal attitudes that see the two characteristics as directly opposed instead of existing in harmony.

Few seem to be pointing out what should be the obvious takeaway from this study: internalized misogyny is alive and well. Women are (shocker) still drinking the patriarchal Kool-Aid, which makes them hostile to other women and apt to body- and slut-shame their peers. Few seem to have questioned whether or not competition among women and societal denigrations of femininity have contributed to the findings of this study.

When it comes down to it, these societal attitudes — the ones that peg women as stupid if they celebrate their looks — are rooted in a worldview that places femininity at the bottom of the social ladder, a worldview that asserts femininity is weak, inferior, and yes, dumb. It’s why we get people rallying against makeup or thinking beauty and fashion are not art forms but rather silly and unimportant.

“When research finds that women pay a price for appearing “sexy” in some way, the inevitable conclusion shouldn’t be that ‘women should change their behavior.’ Instead, it should be that ‘we should all try to change this stupid social attitude,'” writes Nancy Leong.

Feeling sexy and happy with your looks can coexist with intelligence. We need less studies “confirming” that people have internalized these misogynistic ideas. I mean, as if we didn’t already know slut-shaming is rampant and leads to a rape culture — it only stares us in the face when a 16-year-old’s rape goes viral and is mocked with photos mimicking her drugged and assaulted body, or when a girl kills herself after photos of her gang rape are shared online and around school — the list goes on and on and on.

Researchers, the media and the public in general must focus less on these asinine studies and stop parroting “warnings” for women to cover up. Instead, let’s focus on challenging the notion that women can be either pretty or intelligent, never both.

Selfies (and any photos posted to social media, sexy or not) are simply a way to take back the homogenous media and celebrate a variety of bodies and looks. Plenty of women have found solace in other women’s selfies, which they say have helped them to accept their bodies, their natural hair, or any number of other characteristics. Let’s not question the competence of women who engage in what should really be seen as a revolutionary act.