How Feeling Insecure in a Swimsuit Can Hurt Your Capability

Feeling Insecure In a Swimsuit Hurts Math Grade Capability

“I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”

As we ramp up for this month's Oscars, I'm reminded of the late Carrie Fisher and how she wanted her obit to read. As Fisher tells it in her memoir, Wishful Drinking, during the filming of Star Wars, George Lucas had told her that it wasn't possible for her to wear a bra during filming. When she pushed back, his incomprehensible explanation was that “in space,” if a woman wore a bra, her body would expand but the bra wouldn’t and she would end up being strangled to death.

Although her now famous, fiery-witted retort to this incredulous logic demonstrates that she was the original bad-ass princess (Fisher had a great sense of humor while railing against female objectification in the media), her 2008 statement indicates something more insidious than even Fisher may have realized: research shows that feeling objectified, uncomfortable, or comparing our looks to others, hurts our performance.

According to the classic “swimsuit” study, her boss’s ridiculous request might have even affected Fisher’s focused concentration in the film because, for young women, worrying about how they look, takes up so much mental energy, it can impact their capability. 

Colorado College psychology professor Tomi-Ann Roberts and colleague Barbara Frederickson wanted to measure the consequences for girls and women who spend time trying to measure up to an impossible ideal. 

The study asked male and female undergraduate students to try on either swimsuits or sweaters and placed them alone in dressing rooms with a mirror. They were told to fill out fake evaluations on the clothing but only after waiting a while to get a 'real feel' for the clothing. The students were then asked to complete a math test while they waited. They were told it would help another department and why not take advantage of the wait time? 

The women in swimsuits scored far lower on the math test than the women in sweaters. There was no difference in test scores between the men in swimsuits vs. sweaters.

Even though the women were alone in the room, they apparently became distracted by their perceptions of their bodies. When they were wearing swimsuits, women described their emotions as 'disgusted,' 'ashamed' or 'disgraced' whereas the men said they just felt foolish.

They ran a second experiment with different, focused attention questions so as to ensure they weren’t picking up anxieties about math. The results were the same. 

The researchers say their study effectively demonstrates “the psychological costs of raising girls in a culture that persistently objectifies the female body.” Unfortunately, ''Women are so preoccupied with how their bodies look that they use up their mental resources that they could spend on other things,'' says Roberts.

Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, says that even though this study was run in 1998 before the dawn of social media, the pressure for our daughters to live up to an impossible ideal has only gotten worse.

According to a study by Girlguiding UK, a third of seven- to 10-year-old girls believe that they are judged on their appearance and a quarter feel the need to be perfect. Dove's Self Esteem Project cites that 6 out of 10 girls are so concerned with the way they look that they opt out of important activities, and a Common Sense survey called Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image found that many teens who are active online worry about how they are perceived. Girls are the most vulnerable:

  • 35 percent are worried about people tagging them in unattractive photos
  • 27 percent feel stressed about how they look in posted photos
  • 22 percent felt bad about themselves if their photos were ignored

Not only do all of these studies prove that girls who spend a lot of time comparing themselves to their friend's looks, likes, boyfriends and life receive a heavy hit on their body image, they also support the “swimsuit study” by demonstrating these girls have less confidence and lower school performance. Damour says, “the swimsuit studies tell us that they [comparisons with friends] are almost certainly undermining a girl’s learning if she is toggling between her homework and Instagram as she makes them.” 

“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,” Damour suggests.

Dr. Jill Walsh, a researcher who studies the effects of social media on adolescent development, says that girls work extremely hard to get likes on social media. She says, “Most teenagers know that professional modeling photos get retouched before publication, but discount the fact that they’re looking at staged and curated images of their peers.” 

Therefore, we need to start a dialog with our girls about their peers’ posts. Ask them critical questions about why their friend might have taken the photo and whether they think it is an accurate representation of who they are.

We also need to talk to our daughters about how they dress, why they do it, and what impact it may have on their daily lives. The co-author of the original “swimsuit study,” Tomi-Ann Roberts, says that she realizes that many women enjoy wearing short skirts because they look good in them and many others don’t have any problem spending countless hours on their appearance.

''Sure,'' she says, ''But we want them to know there's a cost to that. You don't have as much mental energy to devote to things that could be really satisfying to you…When you sit in a board room…with your skirt up to your crotch ... how good of a lawyer can you be if you're worrying whether too much leg is showing?''

I can only imagine how Carrie Fisher felt two Star Wars movies later in her gold-bikini. 

Apparently, space wouldn’t strangle her in that.


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 Girls Leadership | Confidence | Insecurity | Self Image | Social Media | Lisa Damour
 Girls Leadership | Confidence | Insecurity | Self Image | Social Media | Lisa Damour
 Girls Leadership | Confidence | Insecurity | Self Image | Social Media | Lisa Damour
 Girls Leadership | Confidence | Insecurity | Self Image | Social Media | Lisa Damour