By Kimberly Belmonte
Every morning when I get off the subway, staring at me are billboard-sized Victoria’s Secret ads featuring models sexily posing in lingerie. These huge ads are just one of the many sexualized images of women that are in my face every single every day! Usually, I roll my eyes at these kinds of images, but the other day, I found myself wondering if they were getting under my skin.
You see, I was getting ready to give a talk about my own research and those “speaking in front of a crowd” jitters were kicking in. Now, when I get nervous, my brain goes blank and I needed to review my notes to help me get over my blank-brain-syndrome. I had twenty minutes until speech time but it happened to be really rainy out and the moisture was doing bonkers things to my hair (curly-haired girls, you know the struggle). I was torn about what to do: I did want to look professional, but going over my notes was also a priority. When presented with a challenge that is both appearance-focused (e.g., needing to look professional) and skills-focused (e.g., needing to speak clearly) it sometimes is hard to know which to prioritize – and sometimes I feel like all the sexualized images I see all the time make it even harder. It made me wonder if girls who have really internalized the sexiness ideals that we constantly see in advertising images might be more likely to focus on their appearance than skills?
So why did I think my beauty vs. brain dilemma was at all related to those billboards? Well, research shows that the constant bombardment of sexualized images shapes the way we women and girls experience and think about our own bodies. After seeing sexualized images, many girls start to internalize the idea that it’s really important that they themselves look sexy. Researchers call this internalized sexualization—the belief that your worth is tied to your sexiness or physical sexual attractiveness. But being overly concerned about looking sexy can be a real brain bummer—in previous blogs, we’ve written about research that found being focused on your body’s appearance makes it harder to concentrate on a task.
Researchers Sarah McKenney and Rebecca Bigler wanted to know how internalized sexualization (that is, adopting the sexiness ideal) related to girls academic achievement. In one study, they found that the more important girls thought it was to be considered sexually attractive, the lower their actual grades in math, science, and social studies tended to be. Now, even though that’s some pretty good evidence that being concerned with looking sexy is related to lower academic achievement, they wanted to try and understand what might be behind this relationship.
So McKenney and Bigler devised a genius study where they asked girls to give a fake news report. I mean, have you seen the news lately? It seems like all of the female newscasters are ultra-sexified (picture long blown out hair, TONS of makeup, etc.). But being a news reporter isn’t all about looks—newscasters, even the sexified ones, must be intelligent and able to communicate complicated information in an easy-breezy sort of way. The researchers wondered whether preparing to do this sort of task—the kind in which both appearance and brainpower matter—would result in girls spending more time prepping the way they look or prepping the information they would be presenting. They also wondered whether the way girls prep for the newscast would be connected to girls’ levels of internalized sexualization.
So check this out: Girls were told they would be participating in a study on broadcast journalism and that they would be videotaped giving a fake newscast about a new animal species in Indonesia. The researchers directed the girls to a room where they gave them two things they could use to prepare: the broadcast script and makeup. To do well delivering a news report, girls would have to read a script clearly and smoothly, and pronounce difficult vocabulary words. Each girl was told that she would only have five minutes to prepare—but they weren’t given any direction as to how they should prepare. Now, here’s the clever part: unknown to the girls, the researchers secretly videotaped them in the preparation room (don’t worry, girls later had the option of having their data deleted if they didn’t feel comfortable with that).
The researchers then watched these secret videos to see how much time each girl spent preparing her appearance (e.g., applying makeup) and preparing the material for the presentation (e.g., reading or practicing the script). After recording the fake news broadcast, the girls also completed a survey that measured their internalized sexualization, so the researchers could figure out whether beliefs about the importance of looking sexy had anything to do with this.
And guess what they found? Girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization were more likely to spend a lot of time putting on makeup than practicing the script. At crunch time, girls who thought looking sexy was really important were more focused on how they would look on camera than how they would perform during the intellectual task.
It might make sense that girls who thought looking sexy was really important prioritized looks over performance. But what do these findings mean for all of us? This study shows us the hidden cost of focusing on looking sexy –when we do, we’re less likely to focus on being competent. And this can have huge implications for women and girls doing well in school and in the workplace where our actual performance (and not just our looks) really matter.
So what can we do about all the times girls and women choose to focus on appearance instead of studying (or another intellectual task)? First, let’s remind ourselves about what we lose when we focus too much on appearance and refocus on what really matters! For example, when I had so little time to prepare at the conference, perfect hair and fresh lipstick would have meant forgetting my speech, so I mostly focused on my notes (and yes, my speech was great—#humblebrag). But let’s also push back against all those people and messages that tell women and girls it’s important to look sexy. Instead, let’s emphasize the amazing things girls and women accomplish, rather than how they look!
 McKenney, S. J. & Bigler, R. S. (2014). High Heels, Low Grades: Internalized Sexualization and Academic Orientation Among Adolescent Girls. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 30-36.