If you mindlessly scroll through Instagram or Facebook whenever you have a free moment, you’re far from alone. But have you ever wondered how all those images of other people’s bodies (whether it’s your friend’s vacation photo or a celebrity’s selfie) can affect the way you look at your own?
Recently, the situation with unrealistic beauty standards in popular media is changing. Extremely thin models are no longer hired, and glossy cover stars are less and less retouched. Now that we can see celebrities not only on the covers, but also on social media accounts, it’s easy to imagine that social media has a negative impact on our idea of our own body. But reality is multifaceted, and there are Instagram accounts that make you happier, keep you positive about your body, or at least don’t ruin it.
It is important to note that social media and body image research is still in its early stages, and most of this research is correlational. This means that we cannot prove, for example, whether Facebook makes someone feel negative about their appearance, or whether it is people who are concerned about their appearance who use Facebook the most. That said, social media use appears to be correlated with body image issues. A systematic review of 20 articles published in 2016 found that photo activities, such as scrolling through Instagram or posting photos of yourself, were particularly problematic when it came to negative thoughts about your body.
But there are many different ways to use social media. Do you just watch what others post or do you edit and upload your selfie? Do you follow close friends and family or a list of celebrity and influencer beauty salons? Research shows that who we compare ourselves to is a key factor. “People compare their appearance to people on Instagram or whatever platform they are on, and they often see themselves as inferior,” says Jasmine Fardouli, a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney.
In a survey of 227 female university students, women reported that they tend to compare their appearance to peer groups and celebrities, but not to family members, when browsing Facebook. The comparison group that had the strongest association with body image problems were distant peers or acquaintances. Jasmine Fardouli explains this by saying that people present a one-sided version of their lives on the Internet. If you know someone well, you will understand that he only shows the best moments, but if it is an acquaintance, you will not have any other information.
When it comes to a wider range of influencers, not all content types are created equal.
Research shows that “fitspiration” images, which usually show beautiful people doing exercises, or at least pretending to, can make you harder on yourself. Amy Slater, an associate professor at the University of the West of England, published a study in 2017 in which 160 female students viewed either #fitspo/#fitspiration photos, self-love quotes, or a mixture of both, sourced from real Instagram accounts. Those who only watched #fitspo scored lower for compassion and self-love, but those who watched body-positive quotes (like “you’re perfect the way you are”) felt better about themselves and thought better about their bodies. For those who have considered both #fitspo and self-love quotes, the benefits of the latter seemed to outweigh the negatives of the former.
In another study published earlier this year, researchers showed 195 young women either photos from body-positive popular accounts like @bodyposipanda, photos of skinny women in bikinis or fitness models, or neutral images of nature. The researchers found that women who viewed #bodypositive photos on Instagram had increased satisfaction with their own bodies.
“These results provide hope that there is content that is useful for the perception of one’s own body,” says Amy Slater.
But there is a downside to positive body imagery—they still focus on bodies. The same study found that women who saw body-positive photos still ended up objectifying themselves. These results were obtained by asking the participants to write 10 statements about themselves after viewing the photographs. The more statements focused on her appearance rather than her skills or personality, the more this participant was prone to self-objectification.
In any case, when it comes to fixation on appearance, then even criticism of the body-positive movement seems to be correct. “It’s about loving the body, but there’s still a lot of focus on looks,” says Jasmine Fardouli.
Selfies: self love?
When it comes to posting our own photos on social media, selfies tend to take center stage.
For a study published last year, Jennifer Mills, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, asked female students to take a selfie and upload it to Facebook or Instagram. One group could only take one photo and upload it without editing, while the other group could take as many photos as they wanted and retouch them using the app.
Jennifer Mills and her colleagues found that all participants felt less attractive and less confident after posting than when they started the experiment. Even those who were allowed to edit their photos. “Even if they can make the end result ‘better’, they are still focused on what they don’t like about their appearance,” says Jennifer Mills.
Some of the members wanted to know if someone liked their photo before deciding how they feel about posting it. “It’s a rollercoaster. You feel anxious and then get reassurance from other people that you look good. But it probably doesn’t last forever and then you take another selfie,” says Mills.
In previous work published in 2017, researchers found that spending a lot of time perfecting selfies could be a sign that you’re struggling with body dissatisfaction.
However, big questions still remain in social media and body image research. Much of the work so far has focused on young women, as they have traditionally been the age group most affected by body image issues. But studies involving men are beginning to show that they are not immune either. For example, a study found that men who reported looking at men’s #fitspo photos often said they were more likely to compare their appearance to others and cared more about their muscles.
Longer-term studies are also an important next step because laboratory experiments can only provide a glimpse of possible effects. “We don’t really know if social media has a cumulative effect on people over time or not,” Fardowli says.
What to do?
So, how do you control your social media feed, which accounts to follow and which not? How to use social networks so that turning them off does not feel ugly?
Jennifer Mills has one method that should work for everyone – put down the phone. “Take a break and do other things that have nothing to do with appearance and comparing yourself to other people,” she says.
The next thing you can do is think critically about who you follow. If the next time you scroll through your feed, you find yourself in front of an endless stream of photos focused on appearance, add nature or travel to it.
In the end, cutting social media out completely is next to impossible for most, especially until the long-term consequences of using it are unclear. But finding inspiring scenery, delicious food, and cute dogs to fill your feed might just help you remember that there are a lot more interesting things in life than how you look.