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The drive to be sexy: Belonging motivation and optimal distinctiveness in women's self-sexualization

Jill M Allen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This line of research aimed to identify the core motives, mechanisms, and consequences of women's self-sexualizing behavior. Self-sexualization is characterized as any action taken by a woman which highlights her sexualized features, actively engaging in objectifying behavior (Allen & Gervais, 2012). Furthermore, by integrating literature on core social motives (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Fiske, 2004) and optimal distinctiveness theory (Brewer, 1991) I proposed that self-sexualization allows women to differentiate themselves from other women. Five primary hypotheses were tested in three studies using a multi-method experimental approach. First, Studies 1A-1C were validation studies assessing validity of self-sexualization measures, an initial test of the proposed model, and a measurement study to validate the In-Group Assimilation and Differentiation Scale. Next, Study 2 employed a high impact lab experiment directly manipulating social exclusion, appearance-focus, and target audience, measured in-group assimilation and differentiation concerns and self-sexualization, and assessed whether self-sexualization led to increased feelings of state belonging. Results suggested that women engaged in stereotypically feminine and high-status self-sexualization behavior to transition from an excluded status to inclusive status when the target audience was men. In contrast, women self-sexualized to maintain their inclusive status when the target audience was women. However, assimilation and differentiation concerns did not mediate the relationship between exclusion and self-sexualization. Finally, Study 3 manipulated differentiation and measured self-sexualization in a community sample with diverse characteristics. Women with curvaceous body shapes, currently employed, and not in a committed relationship were most likely to self-sexualize when excluded (vs. included). Across all studies, subtle measures of self-sexualization showed consistent findings yet more blatant and socially prohibited versions of sexuality (e.g., provocative, promiscuous) revealed a different pattern. Overall, my research suggests that women do engage in strategic self-sexualization to feel more included, but the nature of the exclusion experience, target audience, and women's personal characteristics all influence the extent to which women self-sexualize. Limitations of the current research and critical next steps for objectification, belonging, and self-presentation theories and research are discussed.^

Subject Area

Psychology, Social|Women's Studies|Gender Studies

Recommended Citation

Allen, Jill M, "The drive to be sexy: Belonging motivation and optimal distinctiveness in women's self-sexualization" (2013). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3559213.