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Selfies Reveal the Pervasiveness of Gender Stereotypes

When it comes to images that portray young women in clichéd poses, advertisements have nothing on selfies.
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(Photo: tokyoform/Flickr)

(Photo: tokyoform/Flickr)

The advertising industry has long been accused of perpetuating stereotypes of women as weak, overly emotional, and/or obsessed with appearing desirable. But recent research from Germany finds imagery reflecting those notions is even more pervasive in a popular photography platform—one in which the subjects control the content.

When it comes to portraying women in problematic poses, glossy magazine ads have nothing on selfies.

"Selfies turned out to be even more stereotypical than the adverts in four of six categories," researchers Nicola Döring, Anne Reif, and Sandra Poeschl write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. "User-generated content obviously does not automatically lead to a reduction in stereotypical gender portrayal."

The researchers examined a random sample of 250 selfies featuring women, and another 250 starring men, taken from the popular photo-sharing platform Instagram. "The sample only contained selfies that were publicly available online," they note.

When it comes to portraying women in problematic poses, glossy magazine ads have nothing on selfies.

The images were compared with those used in 183 print ads for mobile communication systems published in popular German magazines from 2001 to 2003.

The researchers found women's selfies were more likely than the ads to reflect gender stereotypes in four ways: They were more likely to feature a "feminine touch" (using one's fingers or hands to cradle or caress an object); a "withdrawing gaze" (looking away from the camera, or closing one's eyes); "imbalance" (tilting one's body one way or another, rather than standing straight); and "loss of control" (implied by, among other things, exaggerated facial expressions).

"The biggest differences between selfies and magazine adverts appeared for the categories 'imbalance' (85.6 percent of females in selfies vs. 50 percent of women in ads were not standing stable) and 'loss of control' (79.5 percent of females in selfies vs. 50 percent of females in ads showed strong emotionality)," the research team writes. "Only in two of the six categories the magazine adverts revealed more gender stereotyping: 77.8 percent of the adverts depicted women in a lying position, as opposed to 66.7 percent of the selfies, and in 79.5 percent of the magazine adverts, women were sparsely clothed, as opposed to 59.4 percent of the selfies."

"Additionally, young females' selfies more often use social-media-specific gender expressions like the 'kissing pout,' implying seduction/sexualization, and the 'faceless portrayal' (implying focus on the body solely), while young males' selfies more often contain 'muscle presentation' (implying strength)," they add.

The researchers can only speculate on why people choose to depict themselves in these clichéd, reductive ways. "Gender stereotypes observed in mass media might be adopted by media users," they write, "and might be imitated, or even exaggerated, by young people in their selfies."

In other words, if you want to be popular, you portray yourself the way the your peers are portraying themselves—the rules for which they apparently absorbed from advertising.

It's another example of how media imagery can mess with our minds.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.