The Psychology Behind Sexy Selfies

Back in January, a new psychological study made waves when it classified copious selfie-taking as a mental illness. In the oft-cited paper – published by Personality and Individual Differences – the researchers observed self-objectification, along with three traits, known as the “Dark Triad”: Narcissism, psychopathy, and machiavellianism. Those who spent more time taking selfies and editing them exhibited high degrees of narcissism and psychopathy. However, the study draws no differentiation between sexy and non-sexy selfies.

Selfies are inherently self-objectifying, which suggests low self-esteem, since the taker is seeking validation from others. On the other hand, this kind of behavior is also typical of narcissists who thrive on admiration in order to stroke their egos. Putting two and two together, one would come to the conclusion that selfie addicts are bipolar psychopaths who are both insecure and narcissistic. One would think that by inserting sex into the equation, it would make such assertions even more convincing – but instead, it adds another layer of complexity because of political and social implications.

This begs the question: are girls who take erogenous selfies doing it because they’re self-absorbed psychopaths or are they celebrating their femininity and taking control of their own bodies? The answer is neither.

We are focusing on women because female sexuality has very different connotations compared to male sexuality within society. Women who show off their bodies are seen as promiscuous and insecure, while men who show off their bodies are seen as powerful, confident and sometimes comical. This differentiation in itself is sexist, but it does not expunge the fact that sexy selfie takers are seeking aesthetic validation – and women are often the largest perpetrators of it. For example, male celebrities rarely take sexy selfies of their bodies, while it is commonplace for female celebrities like Beyonce or Kim Kardashian to do so.

When the selfie craze first took off, a Texas mom made headlines when she wrote a manifesto against girls who post sexy, gratuitous selfies online. The declaration was rife with subtle chauvinism, saying: “Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it? You don’t want the Hall boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you? Neither do we.”

Regardless of the sexist overtones, she had a point – girls who post sexy pictures get far more attention from both genders than those who don’t. Women love to hate on other women – the Texas mom is a prime example – and men reward (or sometimes castigate) women who showcase their sexuality. People often forget that Paris Hilton’s and Kim Kardashian’s “careers” first took off because of a leaked sex tape – how many male celebrities can boast the same? It’s because our culture rewards women who reduce themselves to mere sexual entities. There’s nothing wrong with women showing off their sexuality, but when the intention is to obtain confirmation from men, that changes things.

In the end, it is society’s fault for expecting women to seek validation through sexual objectification rather than an innate female predisposition to seek sexual attention. Sure, both men and women can use selfies as a way to satisfy their narcissistic or psychotic needs, but sexy selfies are a manifestation of societal tenets placed on the objectification of the “fairer sex.” Therefore, the underlying cause of sexy selfies has more to do with sociology and gender politics than psychology. So next time a girl posts a picture with her cleavage out, don’t blame her, blame the culture we live in.


Are you a selfie addict that needs treatment? What is your take on social media attention seekers?

Additional images: The Greatest Selfie 



Zara Zhi
Zara Zhi
Zara is a freelance writer and filmmaker who has worked for numerous magazines and news sites. When not coming up with puns or writing screenplays, she enjoys having blind children read to her and donating plasma TVs. Follow her on Twitter: @zarazhi