If you mindlessly scroll through Instagram or Facebook whenever you get a few seconds of downtime, you’re far from alone. But have you ever wondered how all those images of other people’s bodies – whether your friend’s holiday snap or a celebrity’s gym selfie – could be affecting how you view your own?
Much has been made over the years about how mainstream media presents unrealistic beauty standards in the form of photoshopped celebrities or stick-thin fashion models. Now that influencers fill up our feeds, it's easy to imagine that social media, too, is all bad when it comes to body image.
But the reality is more nuanced, and there may be ways to curate your Instagram feed to make you feel happier in your own skin – or, at least, stop you feeling worse.
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It’s important to note that research into social media and body image is still in its early stages, and most studies are correlational. This means we can’t prove whether, for example, Facebook causes someone to have negative feelings about their appearance, or whether people who are concerned about their appearance are more likely to use Facebook.
That being said, using social media does appear to be correlated with body image concerns. A systematic review of 20 papers published in 2016 found that photo-based activities, like scrolling through Instagram or posting pictures of yourself, were a particular problem when it came to negative thoughts about your body.
But there are many different ways to use social media – are you just consuming what others post, or are you taking, editing and uploading selfies? Are you following close friends and family, or a laundry list of celebrities and influencers?
Research suggests that who we compare ourselves to is key.
“People are comparing their appearance to people in Instagram images, or whatever platform they're on, and they often judge themselves to be worse off,” says Jasmine Fardouly, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
In a survey of 227 female university students, women reported that they tend to compare their own appearance negatively with their peer group and with celebrities, but not with family members, while browsing Facebook. The comparison group that had the strongest link to body image concerns was distant peers, or acquaintances.
Fardouly puts this down to the fact that people present a one-sided version of their life online. If you know someone well, you’ll know they’re only showing the best bits – but if they’re an acquaintance, you won’t have any other information to go on.
When it comes to the wider circle of influencers and accounts you follow, not all types of content are equal.
Research suggests that “fitspiration” images in particular – which typically feature beautiful people doing exercise, or at least pretending to – might make you harsher on yourself.
Amy Slater, an associate professor at the University of West England, Bristol, published a study in 2017 in which 160 female undergraduates viewed either #fitspo, self compassion quotes, or a mix of both, all sourced from real accounts on Instagram. Those who viewed only #fitspo scored lower on self-compassion, but those who viewed the compassionate quotes (e.g. “You’re perfect just the way you are”) were nicer to themselves – and felt better about their bodies.
For those who viewed both the #fitspo and the self-compassion quotes, the benefits of the latter appeared to outweigh the negatives of the former.
Another study published earlier this year involved showing 195 young women either body-positive content from popular accounts like @bodyposipanda, photos showing thin women in bikinis or fitness gear, or neutral images of nature. The researchers found that exposing women to #bodypositive Instagram content appeared to boost their satisfaction with their own bodies.
“Those two things together are starting to build a little bit of a story that there may be some content that actually is useful for body image,” says Slater.
But there may be a downside to body-positive images, too: they’re still focusing on bodies. The same study found that women who’d seen the body-positive photos still ended up objectifying themselves – measured when, after looking at the images, the participants were asked to write 10 statements about themselves. The more the statements focussed on their appearance rather than their skills or personality, the higher that participant scored on self-objectification.
That means when someone wrote “I am beautiful” it got lumped in with negative things people said about their bodies. But those people could be taking a broader view of where their beauty comes from, including internal as well as physical attributes, says Slater.
Either way, this fixation with looks is a criticism of the body-positive movement that does seem to hold true. “It is about loving the body, but it is still very much about a focus on appearance,” says Fardouly.
When it comes to posting our own pictures on social media, selfies tend to be the focus.
For a study published last year, Jennifer Mills, an associate professor at York University, Toronto, asked female undergraduates to take a selfie on an iPad and upload it to either Facebook or Instagram. One group could only take a single picture and upload it without editing, but the other had a chance to take as many as they wanted and retouch their selfie using an app.
Mills and her colleagues found that all the selfie takers felt less attractive and less confident after posting than when they’d walked into the experiment – even those who’d been allowed to edit their photos to their heart’s content. “Even though they can make the end result look ‘better’, they still are focused on aspects of what they don't like about the way they look,” she says.
Some of the participants wanted to know if anyone had liked their photo before deciding how they felt about having posted it, although looking at interactions wasn’t part of the study.
“There’s this rollercoaster of feeling anxious and then getting reassurance from other people that you look good,” says Mills. “But that probably doesn’t last forever, and then you take another selfie.”
In previous work published in 2017, researchers found that spending a lot of time perfecting selfies could be a sign that someone is struggling with body dissatisfaction.
Still, some big holes remain in the research on social media and body image.
Most of the work so far has focused on young women, as traditionally they have been the age group most affected by body image concerns. But research including men is starting to show they’re not immune. For example, a study found that men who reported looking at male #fitspo content more frequently said they compared their own appearance to others more often and cared about having muscles more.
Longer term research is also an important next step, because lab experiments can only provide a snapshot of any possible effects. “We don't really know whether over time [social media] has a cumulative effect on people or not,” says Fardouly.
So, for now, how should you curate your own social media feeds if you don’t want to come away feeling bad about your body?
Mills has one takeaway that should work for everyone: put down your phone.
“Take a break and engage in other activities that have nothing to do with appearance and comparing yourself to other people,” she says.
The next best thing would be to think critically about who you follow – and, if you find yourself facing an endless stream of appearance-focussed photos next time you scroll, add some nature or travel into the mix.
After all, giving up social media altogether is probably too big of an ask for most people – especially while the long term effects of using it are still unclear. But finding inspiring landscapes, delicious food, and cute dogs to fill your Instagram feed might just help you remember there’s more to life than what you look like.
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