Remember when Instagram mostly consisted of food photos? These days, your feed is more likely to be populated with friends’ selfies than an artfully arranged plate of avocado toast.
There are a few different types of selfies you’re likely to encounter on social media. There’s the healthy selfie (taken after a workout or holding a smoothie), the beach selfie (particularly painful to see when you are most definitely not on vacation), the plane selfie (best taken when not crammed into a middle seat) … then, there’s the thirst trap.
“A thirst trap is a photo posted on social media or sent to someone with the intent of gaining or sparking interest,” says psychotherapist Tiffany Rowland, LCSW. Thirst traps can be subtly suggestive or overtly sexy, but in either case, they are meant to seduce.
Knowing the psychology of thirst traps—including the type of attention they can attract as well as how they can impact the selfie-taker’s own mental health—is key for deciding if posting one is actually a good idea or not. Before you saunter over to your bathroom mirror to perfect a flirty pout, find out what therapists think of them.
What Is the Purpose of a Thirst Trap?
Simply put, the purpose of a thirst trap is to get attention. “The thirst is the need or craving for attraction and the trap is used to lure one in to provide the wanted attention,” Rowland says. She says that people who crave attention or validation are most likely to post thirst traps or find a purpose in posting them. “A thirst trap isn’t gender-specific, it’s more of a desire to be chosen or wanted by others,” she says.
Someone posts a thirst trap because they want to be desired. While this is not innately a bad thing, Rowland says that there are some drawbacks to posting them on social media. One is that you can’t control who they may attract (or “trap”). You may post a thirst trap in hopes of catching the attention of someone specific, but if it’s shared publicly, others are able to view it too, such as your colleagues, family members, frenemies, or a creepy person who then proceeds to send you inappropriate DMs. Any of this can lead to regretting posting something seductive.
Rowland says that it can also be hard to live up to the expectation of a thirst trap in real life. “Thirst traps can be challenging for the original poster because they can create a superficial image or ideal about themselves which they will be expected to live up to,” she says. This is especially the case if the photo is digitally altered or filtered.
How Posting Thirst Traps Can Affect Self-Esteem
While people tend to post thirst traps in an effort to feel desirable, Rowland says that in reality, they can have a negative effect on self-esteem. Scientific research backs this up. According to one study, posting selfies had no positive psychological effect whatsoever on the participants and, interestingly, those who posted retouched photos experienced less confidence than the unretouched group.
“Self-esteem starts and ends with you,” Rowland says. “A healthy self-esteem is centered around the person and not dependent on the validation of others regarding one’s sense of self-worth.” To her point, if you post a thirst trap but it doesn’t get as many “likes” as you were hoping it would, it could leave you feeling worse off than before you posted it.
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Rowland also points out that sometimes thirst traps receive negative comments, which can be detrimental to one’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, you can’t control how others will respond to your photos.
While there aren’t any scientific studies on thirst traps (yet!), there is evidence showing that excessive social media use makes it more likely to experience depression or anxiety. “Social media, including posting thirst traps, can be addicting because every time you get a ‘like,’ you’re getting a hit of dopamine,” says Blessing Uchendu, LCSW, a body-centered psychotherapist. Uchendu says that over time, this can lead to seeking external validation in other aspects of your life too. For example, you may not feel that you’re doing a good job at work unless other people tell you that you are.
What To Keep In Mind Before Posting a Thirst Trap
If you are considering posting a thirst trap, Rowland suggests checking in with yourself first. Are you in a place mentally where you are prepared for all the attention it may receive, including everyone who will see it and their potentially varied reactions? “The trap will pull all types and not just the type you’re interested in,” Rowland says. “Haters can also be attracted to the trap and the responses can be overwhelming.”
She also says to think about the type of energy you want to attract. “Thirst traps attract thirsty people who are strictly attracted to the physical image you post,” she says. “If you’re not looking for attention or the opinions of others, then be mindful about participating in the game of thirst trap.”
More Effective Ways To Build Positive Self-Confidence
Both therapists say that there’s a major difference between taking photos of yourself—including sexy ones—to enjoy by yourself versus posting them online. “Taking photos of yourself to enjoy alone can absolutely be beneficial because the photos are for yourself and not solely for the gaze of other people,” Uchendu says. “When you take photos for yourself to look at, you get to be the one who is validating what is sexy to you.”
Rowland emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with loving the way you look. If you take seductive photos of yourself to enjoy privately, she agrees with Uchendu and says that this is completely different than posting them online for the purpose of being publicly flattered through “likes.” “Taking selfies for yourself is not a thirst trap. Loving how you look is not a thirst trap, but I believe it can translate to a thirst trap when one posts images for others to see and provide feedback,” she says.
Uchendu says that instead of basing your self-worth on social media likes or posting photos in an effort to feel more confident, she says to practice self-compassion. “Notice if you are speaking negatively to yourself and when you do, break the habit by speaking in a more kind way,” she says. For example, you wouldn’t tear down a friend’s appearance; why would you do that to yourself?
Uchendu also recommends reminding yourself of what you are good at. Are you a good listener? A good friend? These qualities matter and should be appreciated—even if they are often overlooked on social media or even in society in general. “Building positive self-esteem is about being able to identify your strengths and being able to own that,” Uchendu says.
If even with all this in mind, you feel okay about posting your photo, go for it. If not, consider keeping the photo for your eyes only (or your partner’s). After all, there are so many other types of selfies you can post.