Female Self-Sexualization in MySpace.com Personal Profile Photographs
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- Hall, P.C., West, J.H. & McIntyre, E. Sexuality & Culture (2012) 16: 1. doi:10.1007/s12119-011-9095-0
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This article reports the results of a content analysis of female self-sexualization in personal profile pictures on MySpace.com (N = 24,000). Photographs were analyzed according to three measures: ritualization of subordination, body display, and objectification. Trained evaluators coded the photographs for each measure by race/ethnicity, body type, sexual orientation, and education level. Findings reveal that rates of ritualization of subordination were significantly higher for Hispanics, average body types, and bisexuals. Body display and objectification were both significantly higher for Blacks and Hispanics, bisexuals, and women with higher education levels. Body display and objectification rates were significantly lower for larger body types while body display alone was significantly lower for lesbians. Overall self-sexualizing behavior in this study sample is low based upon study measures. Images presented on MySpace.com do reveal, however, an acceptance of constrained and stereotypical notions regarding both gender and sex roles.
Female sexual objectification has been conceptualized as the separating of a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions from her person, or regarding them as if they were capable of fully representing her (Bartky 1990). Also key to this definition is that women are treated as a body part or collection of body parts rather than human beings with the capacity for independent action and decision-making. This process works to reduce a female to the status of a mere instrument or tool for another’s pleasure (Papadaki 2007). Furthermore, sexual objectification commodifies a woman’s body, delivers it for visual inspection, and assigns value equal to the sexual satisfaction that it can supply to others. Sexual objectification occurs in advertisements and photographs when isolated body parts are prominently displayed, including breasts and buttocks, to the exclusion of the remainder of the body. Images of women with their faces concealed or removed and their bodies exposed are frequent examples of sexual objectification in media.
In a similar fashion, frequent displays of sexual objectification ease the collective consciousness making it easier for society to think of women as objects.
For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier to think of them as objects, not people. For most physicians, objectification is mastered their first year of medical school, in the gross anatomy lab…to help depersonalize the human form that students will be expected to sink knives into and eviscerate, anatomy lab personnel often swathe the cadavers in gauze and encourage students to unwrap as they go, part by part….students must learn to think of cadavers as wholly unrelated to the people they once were. (2003, p. 21)
Objectification Theory (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997) provides a framework for research related to sexual objectification. This theory posits that exposure to sexually objectifying experiences from media outlets and interpersonal relationships socialize women to adopt an observer’s perspective as the primary view of their own bodies (Carr and Szymanski 2011; Moradi and Huang 2008). This perspective, known as self-objectification, refers to the act of habitually engaging in body surveillance where individuals monitor their own body in comparison to cultural ideals and expend significant amounts of attention considering how others may perceive their appearance (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997; McKinley and Hyde 1996; Moradi et al. 2005; Piran and Cormier 2005; Tylka and Hill 2004). Even limited exposure to objectifying media has been shown to have a significant impact on the initiation of self-objectification (Roberts and Gettman 2004). Self-objectification has been linked to increased shame (McKinley 1998), depression and disordered eating (Muehlenkamp and Saris-Baglama 2002; Szymanski and Henning 2007; Tiggemann and Kuring 2004), impaired performance related to cognitive load (Gay and Castano 2010), substance abuse (Carr and Szymanski 2011), and sexual dysfunction (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997). Additional health consequences may result if women neglect their physical health and body functioning due to a preoccupation with their outward appearance (Roberts and Gettman 2004).
A pattern of self-objectification, with its internalization of an observer’s perspective, can lead a woman to sexually objectifying herself by willingly presenting her body as a sexual object for others’ use. This type of self-imposed sexual objectification has been termed self-sexualization by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (APA 2007). Based upon the APA’s definition, a female can self-sexualize in three main ways: (1) assuming that her individual value comes primarily from her sexual appeal and behavior; (2) assuming that her sexiness is equivalent to a narrowly defined level of attractiveness; and (3) thinking of herself in objectified terms, that is, as an object for others’ sexual use (APA Task Force 2007). While it is noted that self-sexualized displays can be considered an empowering act for a female who has taken ownership of her body and is exercising sexual agency (Kipnis and Reeder 1997; Lerum and Dworkin 2009), the dehumanizing act of presenting oneself as a sexual object, the primary focus on pleasuring others, along with the pressure to conform to narrow sociocultural definitions linking attractiveness and sexiness make self-sexualization a troubling phenomenon (APA 2007).
Research specifically related to female self-sexualization and sexualizing behaviors is sparse. A notable exception is a study of 2,007 female undergraduate students investigating women’s intentions and acceptance of self-sexualizing behavior (Nowatzki and Morry 2009). Nowatzki and Morry found that consumption of objectifying media, including magazines and television programs portraying highly sexually objectifying content, was positively correlated with female self-sexualizing behaviors. The authors also reported a significant relationship between hyperfemininity and willingness to participate in self-sexualizing behaviors (2009). Hyperfemininity is defined as an “exaggerated adherence to a stereotypic feminine gender role” (Murnen and Byrne 1991, p. 480). Hyperfeminine women place a strong importance on their relationship with men, use sex to gain or maintain romance with men, and prefer traditional male behavior from their partners (Murnen and Byrne 1991). McKelvie and Gold (1994) found hyperfeminine women to hold more permissive sexual attitudes, which, combined with a willingness to please men and conform to traditional sexist roles, helps explain a disposition to engage in self-sexualizing behaviors. In an effort to understand some women’s engagement with self-sexualizing attitudes and behaviors, Liss et al. (2011) developed and tested a scale to measure enjoyment of sexualization. The authors concluded that enjoyment of sexualization by the women in their study related to traditional and conservative beliefs, including hostile and benevolent sexism.
In which ways and how frequently are women self-sexualizing themselves in personal profile photographs on MySpace.com?
Does female self-sexualization on MySpace.com vary by age, ethnicity, body type, sexual orientation, and education level?
The study sample included a total of 24,000 MySpace.com profile photographs across four age categories (18–25, 26–33, 34–41, 42–49). For each age category, 6,000 photographs were analyzed, 500 from each age category of three levels from the four study variables (ethnicity, body type, sexual orientation, and education level). For example, 500 photos were analyzed for Whites 18–25, 500 for Whites 26–33, 500 for Whites 34–41, and 500 for Whites 42–49, for a total of 2,000 photos for Whites across the four age categories. The race/ethnicity variable had three levels (Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics) resulting in a total of 6,000 photographs. The body type variable had three levels (slim, average, and extra) resulting in a total of 6,000 photographs. The sexual orientation variable had three levels (straight, lesbian, bisexual) resulting in a total of 6,000 photographs. The education level variable had three levels (high school, college, post-graduate) resulting in a total of 6,000 photographs. Categories within each study variable were self-selected by the MySpace.com profile owner. For example, the individual profile owner selected their own Race/ethnicity, body type, sexual orientation, and education level while creating their MySpace.com profile. Profile photographs of both public and private profiles appeared in MySpace.com search results. Therefore, both public and private MySpace.com profiles were included in this study sample as coders only analyzed profile photographs and did not actually enter MySpace.com user pages.
The study sample included only individuals who listed themselves as single or divorced, were “here for” dating or a relationship, and resided in the United States. All other search settings or options remained in the default “no preference” category (e.g., religious affiliation, income level, smoking and drinking preferences, number of children). Profile photographs were excluded if they included more than one person (e.g., several friends in one photograph), photographs of someone clearly not the owner of the MySpace.com account (a photograph of a male, child, pet, or celebrity), drawings and animated sketches, undistinguishable images, and close-up shots of tattoos. These inclusions and exclusions were applied to limit the profile photographs included in the analyses to those relevant to the purpose of this study.
The four study variables included ethnicity, body type, sexual orientation, and education level. Each variable had three levels. Race/ethnicity included Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. Body type included slim, average, and extra. Sexual orientation included straight, lesbian, and bisexual. Education level included high school graduate, college graduate, and post college graduate.
The coding scheme utilized was based upon three classifications established by previous content analyses evaluating depictions of women in advertisements. The first is one of Goffman’s (1979) five theoretical classifications from Gender Advertisements known as ritualization of subordination. In this classic stereotypical display, women are placed in a submissive position, often lowered in some form or other of prostration, or displaying a canting posture to show acceptance, appeasement, and availability. Subordinate poses in photographs can shift the balance of power to the observer as the individual being photographed renders an unspoken submission to the observer’s will. Inviting head cants along with lying or sitting on the ground, a bed, or sofa are additionally each considered physical displays of the individual’s acquiescence. Coding for ritualization of subordination was included in this study due to its close alignment with sexual objectification where a female is made into a thing for others’ sexual use. Since MySpace.com users are personally posting profile photographs on their MySpace.com page, profile photographs displaying a ritualization of subordination may be deemed self-sexualization. The current study included four measures of ritualized subordination: (1) shows of submissiveness through camera angles designed to lower the female to a subordinate level; (2) laying on the ground or a sofa; (3) laying or sitting on a bed; and (4) passive sexual readiness or positioned to receive sexual activity.
A second classification used in the current study was body display. Kang (1997) added body display to Goffman’s traditional classifications in her study of women’s representation in magazine advertisements noting that body-revealing clothes and nudity stereotype women’s sexual nature unrealistically. Kang (1997) classified images of women shown wearing revealing, hardly any, or no clothes at all. The current study borrowed from Kang’s interpretation of body revealing clothes to include mini-skirts, tight skirts or evening gowns which expose cleavage, “short”-shorts, “see-through” clothes, halter dresses, or bathing suits. Kang further defined nudity as unclothed (including “close-up” shots where the shoulders were bare and exposed), translucent under apparel and lingerie, and wearing nothing but a towel. While MySpace.com prohibits nudity, implied nudity, including covering breast nipples or genitalia with a hand or other object, is permissible. Body display was included in this study because such displays focus almost entirely on the value that comes from a woman’s body, sexual appeal, or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics. In that a personal profile picture posted on a MySpace.com account represents the first, and perhaps only, visual contact that others have with the profile owner, the choice to include a photograph with a high degree of body display is considered an example of self-sexualization. Four categories of body display were employed in this study, including: (1) swimwear; (2) lingerie, bra, or underpants; (3) nudity (partial or implied); and (4) revealing clothing.
A third classification designed to measure objectification employed by Krassas et al. (2003) in their evaluation of advertisements in men’s magazines (viz., Maxim and Stuff) was also employed. Krassas et al. (2003) coded any photograph that partially or fully concealed an individual’s face while partially or fully exposing any other body part, including breasts or buttocks, as objectification. This measure was included in the current study due to close alignment with sexual objectification where a female is made into a thing for others’ sexual use. Photographs where the head or face are obscured or removed are dehumanizing and literally reduce one’s body to an object. The current study included five classifications for self-sexualized objectification: (1) head or face completely removed or concealed with body exposure; (2) head or face partially concealed (at least approximately 30% concealment) with body exposure; (3) only buttocks or legs included; (4) only breasts included; and 5) back shots where the individual’s head was included but was turned away from the photo showing only the backside of the body. These classifications were mutually exclusive, such that coders were instructed to record what would be considered the most prominent or narrowly defined offense in each photograph. For example, a profile picture of only a woman’s buttocks would be coded exclusively as “only buttocks or legs included” and not as “head or face completely removed or concealed with body exposure” even though a buttocks-only photograph clearly would not include the head or face.
One of the authors (PCH) and five undergraduate students were used to analyze the 24,000 MySpace.com personal profile photographs. Each rater was randomly assigned to evaluate photographs from eight different sample groupings, for a total of 4,000 photographs per rater. In an effort to overcome possible individual rater bias, upon random distribution of sample groupings, it was ensured that each rater evaluated a mix of racial/ethnic and sexual orientation samples. An inter-rater reliability test including 100 profile photographs was given prior to data collection and resulted in an agreement rating of 89%. Data collection occurred two mornings each week for 3 weeks in February, 2010. Rater reliability was again tested at the conclusion of data collection to measure rater drift and again yielded an agreement rating of 89%. Data was entered into an Excel spreadsheet by an additional research assistant before being analyzed.
Data were analyzed using SPSS version 17.0 for Macintosh. Logistic regression models were created and odds ratios were used to test the association between ritualization of subordination, body display, and self-objectification with four models comprised of: (Model 1) race/ethnicity; (Model 2) body type; (Model 3) sexual orientation; and (Model 4) level of education. Each model was adjusted for age. In the first model, White was the reference category for race/ethnicity and comparisons were made between Whites-Blacks and Whites-Hispanics. For model two testing body type, slim was the reference category and comparisons were made between slim-average and slim-extra. In model 3, sexual orientation was tested and the reference category was straight. Comparisons were made between straight-lesbian and straight-bisexual. The last model tested education level with high school as the reference category. Comparisons were made between high school-college and high school-post graduate.
Types of self-sexualization (N = 24,000)
Type of self-sexualization
Ritualization of subordinationa
Laying on ground
Laying on bed/sofa
Lingerie, underwear, bra
Head/face completely removed
Head face partially removed
Factors associated with self-sexualization, OR (95% CI)
Ritualization of subordination
Race/ethnicity (n = 6,000)
1.175 (0.990, 1.394)
1.828 (1.553, 2.153)***
6.439 (4.671, 8.877)***
1.362 (1.151, 1.610)***
1.565 (1.325, 1.847)***
4.318 (3.103, 6.007)***
Body type (n = 6,000)
1.228 (1.045, 1.443)*
0.909 (0.786, 1.051)
0.834 (0.676, 1.028)
1.000 (0.847, 1.181)
0.786 (0.678, 0.911)**
0.417 (0.324, 0.535)***
Sexual orientation (n = 6,000)
1.127 (0.934, 1.361)
0.776 (0.631, 0.954)*
1.243 (0.916, 1.687)
2.653 (2.211, 3.183)***
3.817 (3.186, 4.572)***
3.876 (2.943, 5.104)***
Education level (n = 6,000)
1.169 (0.996, 1.373)
1.836 (1.571, 2.145)***
1.837 (1.443, 2.339)***
0.928 (0.786, 1.095)
1.517 (1.294, 1.778)***
1.478 (1.151, 1.899)**
Blacks (p < 0.001) and Hispanics (p < 0.001) were both more likely than Whites to demonstrate body display. Extra body types were less likely than slim (p < 0.01) and lesbians were less likely than straights (p < 0.05), while bisexuals were much more likely (p < 0.001) than straights, to engage in body display. College graduates (p < 0.001) and post graduates (p < 0.001) were both more likely to exhibit body display when compared to high school graduates.
Blacks (p < 0.001) and Hispanics (p < 0.001) were both more likely to objectify when compared to Whites. Extra body types were less likely to objectify compared to slim (p < 0.001), bisexuals were more likely to objectify when compared to straights (p < 0.001), and college graduates (p < 0.001) and post graduates (p < 0.01) were both more likely to objectify when compared to high school graduates.
The purpose of this content analysis was to examine self-sexualization in personal profile photographs of women on the popular SNS MySpace.com. The first research question guiding this study focused on the ways and frequency which women engage in self-sexualization in personal profile photographs. Subordination, body display, and objectification, which served as measures of self-sexualization in this study, were each observed to some degree, although overall their presence may be considered low compared to sexualized displays coded in advertising (Kang 1997) and men’s magazines (Krassas et al. 2003). While women are frequently sexualized in a variety of media and consumer products (see APA 2007) and concerns have been raised related to online sexualized displays (Kornblum 2005), without longitudinal data and further study it is impossible to conclude that self-sexualized displays in MySpace.com profile photographs has increased.
Body display, including photos depicting swimwear, underwear, bra, lingerie, implied nudity, and revealing clothing was the most frequent form of self-sexualization. Female body display is a staple in virtually all media forms, including advertising, magazines, television, movies, and video games (Aubrey 2006; Choma et al. 2007: Engeln-Maddox 2006; Frith et al. 2005; Reichert et al. 1999; Thompson 2000). The belief that “sex sells” is a clear motivation for the producers of such media who consistently sexualize women. The question remains why a woman would choose to present herself in a sexualized manner? Both Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) and Cultivation Theory (CT) offer one explanation for this phenomenon and help to establish the media’s role as a sexual socialization agent (Gurung and Chrouser 2007). According to SCT, observational learning is the result of exposure to media displays and interpersonal interactions (Glanz et al. 2008). Observation learning is the primary source for the development of outcome expectations, or the anticipated results and subsequent reinforcements of a particular behavior. Provided the abundant media and interpersonal modeling related to sexual objectification and the subsequent social rewards (e.g., attention, approval, status), a woman choosing to present herself in a sexualized manner would be consistent with SCT. Likewise, CT addresses the impact that mass media themes have on communities and social systems (Glanz et al. 2008). CT specifically states that as individuals are increasingly exposed to a particular media message or perspective, the greater the likelihood this message or perspective will be adopted or accepted as reality (Gerbner et al. 1994). CT thus results in a “mediated reality” where that which is seen or heard most often becomes that which is most believed. In a study of adolescents, Peter and Valkenburg (2007) found that exposure to a sexualized media environment was associated with perceiving women as sex objects. Similarly, Nowatzki and Morry (2009) concluded that exposure to sexually objectifying media was positively associated with a willingness to participate in sexualizing behaviors. Thus, similar to observation learning in SCT, CT links messages and themes observed in a media saturated and sexualized environment with personal attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
Ritualization of subordination, including submissive poses, laying on the ground, a bed or a sofa, and positioned for sexual readiness was the second most common form of self-sexualization identified in this study. The portrayal of women in submissive poses has persisted over time (Goffman 1979; Millard and Grant 2006). Submissiveness shows an acceptance of traditional gender and heterosexist norms that have been associated with hyperfemininity (Clifford et al. 2005) as well as both hostile and benevolent sexism (Glick et al. 2000).
Levy’s description of women void of feeling, passion, voice, and life unnervingly evokes images of the anatomy lab where cadaver heads are covered so as depersonalize, dehumanize, and reduce a once living human being to its present value (Roach 2003).
…aren’t even people. They are merely sexual personae, erotic dollies from the land of make-believe. In their performances, which is the only capacity in which we see these women we so fetishize, they don’t even speak. As far as we know, they have no ideas, no feelings, no political beliefs, no relationships, no past, no future, no humanity (p. 196).
The second research question guiding this study focused on variations of female self-sexualization on MySpace.com by age, race/ethnicity, body type, sexual orientation, and education level. Self-sexualization in general, appears to decrease with age. This finding may stem from sociocultural norms associating youth and sexuality. Although a youthification movement continues (see APA 2007), and many efforts related to looking younger and sexier, including clothing, cosmetics, and plastic surgery have grown in popularity, older women in this study sample were less likely to self-sexualize.
Hispanic women were significantly higher in each of the three measures of self-sexualization. Hispanic culture has traditionally been typified by hypermasculine and hyperfeminine gender expressions (Goldwert 1985). In a study of femininity ideology, Villar-Mendez (2008) found female Hispanic college students scored higher than their White classmates in both measures of objectification and submission to the desire of others. Villar-Mendez concluded that adherence to cultural expectations related to hyperfemininity places Hispanic women at higher risk for psychological difficulties. Others have found that Hispanic girls and women must contend with hyperfeminine cultural stereotypes and expectations for hypersexuality and promiscuity (Brooks 2010; Lee 2004; Rolon-Dow 2004).
Black men and women of all races have been victims of sexual stereotyping: the black man and the black woman, like the “Latin spitfire,” are lustful and hotblooded; they are thought to lack the capacities for instinctual control that distinguish people from animals. (1990, p. 23)
Both sexist and racist stereotypes may offer the best explanation of this study’s findings related to Black women and objectification. Findings from this study indicate that while perhaps all females share some semblance of lived experience, race, ethnicity, and culture introduce a unique set of experiences and challenges.
Black and Hispanic youth consume more media than their White counterparts (Kaiser 2010). Increased media consumption works to reinforce sociocultural norms related to sexuality and objectification of women. Black women are frequently presented in media as hypersexual, promiscuous, and immoral (Hooks 1992). For example, music and music videos popular among Black youth frequently display women as sexual objects and clearly communicate that Black women should look sexy and please men (Emerson 2002; Ward and Rivadeneyra 1999). Gordon (2008) found a connection between more objectifying music videos and Black girls’ acceptance of objectifying attitudes. Similarly, Hispanic women have been portrayed in media as hot-blooded temptresses obsessed with carnal pleasure and possessing large sexual appetites (Trevino 1985).
Extra body typed women had significantly lower rates of body display and objectification. This finding is likely due to a failure to achieve the sociocultural thin-ideal, leading these individuals to consider their value to society and to others as being separate from both physical appearance and sexiness. This is not to say that these women are immune to the forces of an objectifying cultural, or that they are protected from the psychological consequences of shame and anxiety associated with their body type (Tiggemann and Linch 2001; Tylka and Hill 2004).
Lesbian women had significantly lower rates of body display. Bartky (1990) noted that some lesbian communities have rejected traditional images of femininity and are establishing a new less-hegemonic definition of beauty. However, in their test of objectification theory with lesbian women, Kozee and Tylka (2006) found that lesbian participants reported higher rates of body surveillance when compared to heterosexual participants. A decrease in disordered eating symptomology among lesbians in their study nonetheless supports the idea that lesbian identity protects women from the deleterious effects of body surveillance that heterosexual women are subject to, perhaps as a result of a lesbian’s potentially higher levels of feminist consciousness and resistance to gender-role norms related to the thin-ideal.
Bisexual women were significantly higher in each of the three measures of self-sexualization. To date, little research has been done related to bisexuals. Malatesta and Robinson (1995) have suggested that bisexuality is a consequence of hypersexuality. The current study neither confirms nor denies a notion of bisexual women’s hypersexuality, but may be a sign of perceived social stereotypes and expectations for bisexual hypersexuality. It can be concluded that bisexual women in this study engaged in self-sexualization at statistically significant higher levels than women who self-identified as heterosexual or lesbian.
College and post-graduate women had significantly higher rates of body display and objectification. This study finding is counterintuitive as educational attainment and experience might be considered a buffer from objectifying and sexualizing sociocultural influences. Furthermore, it might be expected that women with college and post-graduate degrees would presumably gain status, influence, and self-worth from attributes related to intellect rather than self-sexualized displays. One plausible explanation for this finding would be that a highly sexualized persona serves as an alter ego for these women, allowing them an online identity largely unavailable to them given prevailing societal expectations for the educated, socially-responsible, ‘buttoned-down’ woman. Furthermore, educated women may enjoy a greater feeling of liberation from perceived cultural norms that could potentially preclude lesser-educated women from engaging in self-sexualization.
This study has several key limitations. In creating their MySpace.com personal profile, the sample in this study self-selected into study variable categories. These categories, especially body type, are largely undefined and entirely subjective. While there are no foreseen rewards for dishonesty in this self-selection process, these procedures were entirely beyond the control of the principal investigator and are considered a study limitation. The combination of rather blunt measures related to self-sexualized displays and the complex intersection of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and culture in this study is also considered a study limitation. In the absence of more detailed and contextualized information relating to the lived experiences of the women in this study sample, the results from this content analysis are greatly limited. Even with acceptable inter-rater reliability, content analysis is a limited research methodology prone to rater bias. Furthermore, while levels of reliability may be satisfactory, issues related to study variable’s validity and subsequent limited comparison to other research may be the result of the principal investigator’s interpretation study variables. For example, photographs which met the definition of some form of self-sexualization were coded as such, but there was no way to determine if the woman in the photograph had actually intended to engage in a self-sexualized display.
Despite recent attention to the sexualization of women, this study found that self-sexualized displays in personal profile photographs on the SNS MySpace.com are less frequent than similar displays in advertisements and magazines. The current study did find statistically significant differences among women who post self-sexualizing profile photographs on MySpace.com. These findings suggest an acceptance of constrained and stereotypical notions regarding beauty, race, gender, and sex roles among some women with personal profiles on MySpace.com.