Are sexy selfies a sign of gender oppression?


All those bedroom eyes, duckfaces and cleavages splattered all over Instagram, Facebook and other social media (not to mention Tinder), and I bet you have been all wondering whether it’s a result of some sort of internalised misogyny or patriarchal objectification. Well, apparently the science says no:

Publicly displayed, sexualized depictions of women have proliferated, enabled by new communication technologies, including the internet and mobile devices. These depictions are often claimed to be outcomes of a culture of gender inequality and female oppression, but, paradoxically, recent rises in sexualization are most notable in societies that have made strong progress toward gender parity. Few empirical tests of the relation between gender inequality and sexualization exist, and there are even fewer tests of alternative hypotheses. We examined aggregate patterns in 68,562 sexualized self-portrait photographs (“sexy selfies”) shared publicly on Twitter and Instagram and their association with city-, county-, and cross-national indicators of gender inequality. We then investigated the association between sexy-selfie prevalence and income inequality, positing that sexualization—a marker of high female competition—is greater in environments in which incomes are unequal and people are preoccupied with relative social standing. Among 5,567 US cities and 1,622 US counties, areas with relatively more sexy selfies were more economically unequal but not more gender oppressive. A complementary pattern emerged cross-nationally (113 nations): Income inequality positively covaried with sexy-selfie prevalence, particularly within more developed nations. To externally validate our findings, we investigated and confirmed that 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 and women’s clothing).

Translating from academise: sexy selfies (self-sexualised images?) result from women, often of lower economic status, enhancing and using their comparative advantage in the market for higher economic status males.

Quality male mates (as determined by income and assets (get your mind out of the gutter), looks and appearance, personality and charisma, social standing, etc.) are a relatively rare commodity (or certainly a highly sought-after one), hence the competition for that scarce resource can be quite fierce. Not every woman can – or wants to – compete on the basis of status, education, income or personality; some only have natural (well, often enhanced) advantages. To instinct to deny these women an opportunity to participate in the meet (or meat) market on their terms leads to distorted outcomes and decreases the optimum utility. It’s downright socialism.

It’s really the invisible hand that’s holding the phone that’s taking your self-portrait.