Imagine a Facebook profile picture of a young woman in a red dress with a plunging neckline and a thigh-high slit that exposes a garter -- how do you think other young women will perceive her?
A newly published study presented a group of females ages 13 to 25 with a fake Facebook account. Some of the participants looked at "Amanda" -- a fan of "Twilight," "The Notebook" and Lady Gaga -- with a profile picture of a girl in jeans and shirt, her chest swathed in a scarf.
The others got Amanda in the hubba-hubba dress.
Other than the photo, the two accounts matched each other exactly, study co-author Elizabeth Daniels told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Tuesday.
Then the 118 participants were asked whether they thought the girl in their given profile picture was pretty, whether she was good friend material and whether they had "confidence in her ability to get a job done."
Amanda in the jeans and scarf was considered prettier, a better candidate as a friend and more competent. But the greatest difference was in that last category. Apparently, sexy on social media equals incompetence on the job.
Was Daniels surprised by the results? "Not really, given existing research that's out there" on sexualization of women in mass media, said the researcher and assistant psychology professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.
But the same research hadn't been done on social media. Daniels said she wanted to look at social media and, specifically, what happened when a more positive image of a woman was presented.
Daniels' co-author, Eileen Zurbriggen of UC Santa Cruz, told The Times by email: "Numerous studies have shown that when women are depicted in sexualized ways (revealing clothing, provocative poses), they are perceived as less intelligent, competent and capable. But this is one of the first studies to show that not only do other women and girls perceive the women in non-sexualized photographs as more competent, they're also seen as prettier and more desirable as a friend."
The study's authors agreed on the need to better educate both girls and boys about the digital trail they are establishing.
"Once a picture is posted to Facebook (or elsewhere online), it's out there. ... There's a permanent digital trail that previous generations didn't have to worry about," Zurbriggen said. "Even 20 years ago, a woman could act and dress 'sexy' in college but then put on a suit when she graduated and went on job interviews. Now, those sexualized photographs that she posted to Instagram or Facebook are hard to erase and may impact her employability."
There's also the need, Daniels said, for a cultural shift, away from a "really narrow focus" on women's sexuality toward "who women are as people and what they are doing in the world."
The study, from Oregon State University, was published Monday in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.