A study of images on social media has found that in places where there is greater income inequality, women are more likely to upload images of themselves that emphasize their sexual attractiveness. On the other hand, no association was found between how sexual the images were and the level of local discrimination against women.
Fretting about images regarded as “too sexy” is an age-old pursuit, and social media has given people plenty to worry about. Dr Khandis Blake of the University of New South Wales has taken the rare approach of investigating possible causes, rather than evidence-free pontification.
As Blake notes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “[Sexualized] 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.”
Blake compared the geolocations of 68,562 self-portraits on Twitter and Instagram that were accompanied by hashtags of words like “sexy" and “hot” with measures of both income and gender inequality.
Looking first within the United States, Blake found that more economically unequal cities and counties produced more images (allowing for population) deemed sexualized. However, there was no difference in image numbers between areas considered more sexist and those where women are freer, based on the UN Gender Inequality Index's metrics. Blake emphasized to IFLScience that her income inequality measures are “between people generally (like between households)” rather than the male-female pay gap.
The findings are consistent with the theory that the pressure of living in a society with extremes of wealth and poverty induces greater competition, and some women perhaps respond by advertising their physical attractiveness. This is usually explained in terms of women seeking a wealthier partner, but Blake told IFLScience income inequality may drive this trend in other ways, pointing to the money “Instagram influencers” earn through product promotion.
Correlational studies like this can't rule out the possibility that some other factor associated with income inequality is the true behavior-changer, but Blake confirmed the association (whether causal or not) in other ways. She repeated the analysis across 113 countries and found a similar correlation, although it was strongest in economically developed nations. Blake also found that areas of the United States with greater income inequality have more expenditure on beauty salons and women's clothing. In each case, no correlation was found with other measures of women's subordination, such as access to education.
Blake told IFLScience she hasn't done an equivalent study of male behavior, but would expect that “in environments of high income inequality – where competitiveness is emphasized, and people are preoccupied with their place on the social hierarchy – men should be more inclined to advertise their wallets online... Men might choose to advertise their fancy cars, brand name clothing, etc.”
There is often concern expressed over posting sexual images in that it could re-enforce gender inequality, as well as being a product of it. Blake told IFLScience she hasn't looked at the relationship over time and is not aware of anyone else having tested the relationship in this way either, but she has acknowledged elsewhere that “fixating on our appearance... can make us more vulnerable to eating disorders.”
Studies in this field are often misrepresented to imply that an entire generation are behaving the same way. “There are many women around the world who do choose to opt out of the “beauty game”, so to speak, and they end up happy [and] healthy,” Blake noted. Moreover, she added the benefits can be exaggerated, “If you're a jerk interpersonally, people are eventually going to realize you are a jerk – sexy selfie or not.”