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How do you get a young woman to bomb a math test? Have her take it while wearing a bathing suit.
That’s what researchers in a classic study from 1998 found when they put female and male undergraduates in dressing rooms with a mirror and either swimsuits or sweaters in a range of sizes. The students were instructed to try on the assigned clothing and wear it for a while before filling out a sham evaluation of the apparel.
While they waited, the participants were asked by the researchers to use the time efficiently by completing a math test, supposedly for colleagues “in the department of education.” The students were alone in the dressing rooms, yet the women in bathing suits scored far lower on the math test than the women in sweaters. The men performed the same regardless of what they wore.
To confirm that they were detecting a detrimental effect of wearing a bathing suit, and not anxieties about math, researchers ran a second study. This time, instead of math questions, they used a test of the capacity for focused attention and again found that women wearing swimsuits scored lower than women wearing sweaters. In short, when young women are prompted to reflect on their physical appearance, they seem to lose intellectual focus.
Having to take a test in swimwear seems not to distract most young men, but it does distract many young women, almost certainly due to the absurd beauty standards to which they are disproportionately subjected. In the words of the researchers, the swimsuit study effectively demonstrated “the psychological costs of raising girls in a culture that persistently objectifies the female body.”
Though the first of these bathing suit experiments was published before many current teenagers were born, today’s social media norms give the findings even greater relevance. Now, swimsuit season, especially for adolescent girls, no longer ends with summer because girls are using social media to share carefully crafted bikini shots all the time.
Not every teenage girl posts photos of herself in a bikini, but most teenagers have seen pictures of girls who do. And as Dr. Jill Walsh, a researcher who studies the effects of social media on adolescent development, found from extensive interviews with teenagers, these are images with which girls become especially engaged. According to Dr. Walsh, “Girls are not comparing themselves to media ideals as much as one would expect, but they are making micro-comparisons to their peers. It’s not me versus Gisele Bündchen in a bikini, it’s me versus my good friend Amy in our bikinis.” Regardless of the outcome of such comparisons (and is there a good one?), the swimsuit studies tell us that they are almost certainly undermining a girl’s learning if she is toggling between her homework and Instagram as she makes them.
On top of this, recent research shows that scrutinizing online images of oneself and one’s peers harms more than grades. A new review of studies looking at the psychological effects of social media found that young people who spend a lot of time appraising their friends’ online photos ultimately feel worse about their own bodies.
Clearly, we want to steer girls away from these hazards, but we probably won’t get too far by criticizing them for participating in their own, and their friends’, objectification. Instead, we might take some guidance from the swimsuit studies and ask them to consider the tax on their concentration. For example, a parent could say, “Our attention is like internet bandwidth – we only have so much. When your brother is streaming a movie, it slows down YouTube. If you’re thinking about a picture you just saw on Snapchat, you can’t focus as well on the test you’re studying for. You’ll work better and faster when you have fewer distractions.”
Further, we might follow Dr. Walsh’s encouragement to “engage girls as critical consumers of their friends’ images in the same way we ask them to be critical consumers of popular media.” Most teenagers know that professional modeling photos are retouched before publication, but discount the fact that they’re looking at staged and curated images of their peers. Dr. Walsh suggests that, “We might ask our teenage girls, ‘What do you think of that picture?’ or ‘Why was it taken?’ or ‘Who is it for?’ and start a discussion about what’s going on behind the scenes.” And, with a recent study showing that using social media can heighten body dissatisfaction in both boys and girls alike, we should pose these questions to our sons as well.
Online imagery allows adolescents to observe one another in detail and gives unprecedented power to the age-old teenage preoccupation with appearance. We want to help our teenagers minimize the harm that can come from social media use, but the deluge of digital activity can make it hard to know where to start. For girls in particular, addressing the impact of the ubiquitous bikini shot might be an excellent place to dive in.
Lisa Damour is a psychologist in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University and the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is the author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.” Follow her on Twitter: @LDamour.
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