Instagram and social media are everywhere. A carefully cultivated world of filters, FaceTune and fitspos is not conducive to a healthy body image. With experience comes the realisation that a lot of Instagram is bullshit. Whether you realise this or not, doesn’t matter. The algorithm is driven to encourage engagement and sales. It is no longer a photo-sharing app, it is a money-making platform. Instagram do not care that you think you’re a fat shite. In fact, a negative self-worth and body image drives sales of detox teas, 28 day shred plans and photoshopping apps[1].

How does looking at a photo of someone else drive body dissatisfaction amongst young females?

Influences on Female Body Image

The influences on female body image are vast and varied. It is not possible to identify a single root cause of body dissatisfaction amongst women. Research has suggested female body image is highly affected by various social and cultural factors, such as family and friends. However, the media is also a powerful influence[2]. This is highly accepted in literature, with studies showing exposure to a thin, “ideal” physique in magazines and mass media had a negative effect on female eating behaviours, body satisfaction and self-worth[3]. That is a big old yikes.

But where does social media fit in?

Not all social media is the same. Studies examining the influence of Facebook on body image found it was not the total time on Facebook that correlated with poor body image, but the total time spent on photo-based activities[4]. As it is 2020, and the only use for Facebook is for Ireland Simpsons Fans or spreading anti-vaxxer propaganda, I thought it would be interesting to delve into more relevant social media platforms, such as Instagram.

Furthermore, Instagram is a visual-based platform that is hugely popular amongst the gals. What does that mean for us?

Instagram’s Influence on Body Image

Social Comparison is the Thief of Self-Esteem

Most of the research concerning social media use and body image draws upon the social comparison theory. The social comparison theory states that as humans, we are predisposed to compare ourselves to those doing “better” than us[5]. Comparing ourselves to this “ideal” physique/diet/lifestyle creates dissatisfaction. We compare ourselves against celebrities, influencers, our peers and even our former selves!

Influencers, Fitspos & Celebrities

Celebrities are well-known individuals, prevalent within all forms of media[6]. Within the Instasphere, this extends to fitspos and influencers. Literature has suggested that consistently displaying “thin and attractive” female celebrity images cements an expectation upon women, and encourages body dissatisfaction[7]. The Instagram algorithm is based on engagement, and if a photo of the “ideal” body is posted, it will be pushed to a wider audience. This will prompt further likes and engagement. From a business standpoint, this makes complete sense. A photo showing a product that can help you achieve this dream physique will attract attention, and subsequently $$$. Anything else won’t make you money, or get engagement. So why would you push it to millions of users?

Studies have found that exposure to the “ideal” body exhibited by celebrities on Instagram can immediately impact young women’s mood and body satisfaction[6].

A Caption is Worth A Thousand Words

Caption use is an interesting concept. Caption use is a double-edged sword. There are those who claim #bodypositive purely to get engagement and likes. It’s disingenuous, egotistical and doesn’t actually help anybody. And then conversely, you have those using captions to convey truths about Instagram posts and reality.

The literature is inconclusive as to the impact of the caption. Some studies have found they can influence those with pre-existing body image issues positively and negatively[8]. Conversely, a more recent study[9] found that the caption was largely irrelevant, and it was the image alone that influenced women’s body image.

To me, it suggests that the impact of the caption depends on the individual.

Creating the Perfect #Selfie

Instagram is also for posting content, not merely consuming it. Young women frequently reported putting extreme effort into curating the “perfect” Instagram, in particular when their physical self was involved. In addition, some women experienced negative thoughts about their appearance when posting selfies[10]. Common concerns include how others perceive their body and the amount of likes/comments[11].

Indeed, appearance-related comments on Instagram can lead to decreased body image amongst young women, even if the comment is positive[12]!

When Following “Health” Accounts Isn’t So Healthy

Who we follow can also impact upon our body image. Fitspiration accounts on social media serve to promote exercise and diet-related images, tips and recipes[13]. However, this is not always positive and motivational.

Exposure to fitspiration images is linked with lower self-esteem and negative mood[13]. In addition, following health/fitness accounts has been evidenced to create an increased drive for “thinness”[14]. Similarly, following celebrity accounts on Instagram is associated with an increase in “body checking” by young women[6]. Body “checking” and comparison are key features in many eating disorders, and can be cause for concern [15].

#NotAllFitspos

We end this article with the caveat that not all Instagram posts create body dissatisfaction. However, it may create problematic thoughts that can lead to poorer body image. Care must be taken when using Instagram, particularly amongst young women.

Suggestions for Instagram Use

Instagram use is obviously personal to the individual. If you find yourself affected by the content you see, these tips may help you better your Instagram experience.

  1. Tailor your feed. Audit accounts that you follow. If there is a particular account that triggers unhelpful thoughts and affects your mood, unfollow. If you don’t want to unfollow, you can always mute their posts. Instagram will show you posts and accounts based on what you engage with. If you change your environment, the algorithm will change with it!
  2. Audit your behaviour. Notice how you feel/act in response to seeing certain content, and if it affects your mood.
  3. Limit your time on Instagram. If you find yourself drained and feeling insecure after scrolling, it might be time to cut back on your time spent on the platform.
  4. Recognise Instagram is a business – and not reality!

References

  1. Harnish, R.J., Gump, J.T., Bridges, R., Slack, F.J., Rottshaefer, K.M. (2018) ‘Compulsive Buying: The Impact of Attitudes Toward Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Physical Appearance Investment’, Psychological Reports, 122(5), pp. 1632-1650. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30043676/ (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  2. Thompson, J.K., Heinberg, L.J., Altabe, M., Tantleff-Dunn, S. (1999) Exacting beauty: Theory, assessment, and treatment of body image disturbance. United States: American Psychological Association. Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-02140-000 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  3. Grabe, S., Ward, L.M., Hyde, J.S. (2008) ‘The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies’, Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), pp. 460-476. Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-04614-005 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  4. Meier, E.P., Gray, J. (2014) ‘Facebook Photo Activity Associated with Body Image Disturbance in Adolescent Girls’, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking, 17(4). Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2013.0305 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  5. Festinger, L. (1954) ‘A theory of social comparison processes’, Human Relations, 7(2), pp. 117-140. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001872675400700202?journalCode=huma (Accessed 23 December 2020).  
  6. Brown, Z., Tiggermann, M. (2016) ‘Attractive celebrity and peer images on Instagram: Effect on women’s mood and body image’, Body Image, 19, pp. 37-43. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144516300936#bib0095 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  7. Maltby, J., Giles, D.C., Barber, L., McCutcheon, L.E. (2010) ‘Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents’, British Journal of Health Psychology, 10(1). Available at: https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1348/135910704X15257 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  8. Lewallan, J. (2016) ‘When Image Isn’t Everything: The Effects of Instagram Frames on Social Comparison’, The Journal of Social Media, 5(2). Available at: https://www.thejsms.org/index.php/TSMRI/article/view/159/81 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  9. Brown, Z., Tiggemann, M. (2020) ‘A picture is worth a thousand words: The effect of viewing celebrity Instagram images with disclaimer and body positive captions on women’s body image’, Body Image, 33, pp. 190-198. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144520300279#bib0185 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  10. Baker, N., Ferszt, G., Breines, J.G. (2019) ‘Female College Students’ Instagram Use and Body Image’, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 22(4). Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2018.0420 (23 December 2020).
  11. Ridgway, J.L., Clayton, R.B. (2016) ‘Exploring Associations of Body Image Satisfaction, Instagram #Selfie Posting, and Negative Romantic Relationship Outcomes’, Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 19(1). Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2015.0433 (Accessed 23 December 2020].
  12. Tiggemann, M., Barbato, I. (2018) ‘”You look great!”: The effect of viewing appearance-related Instagram comments on women’s body image’, Body Image, 27, pp. 61-66. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144518302018 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  13. Tiggemann, M., Zaccardo, M. (2015) ‘”Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image’, Body Image, 15, pp. 61-67. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144515000893 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  14. Ahadazadeh, A.S., Sharif, S.P., Ong, F.S. (2017) ‘Self-schema and self-discrepancy mediate the influence of Instagram usage on body image satisfaction among youth’, Computers in Human Behavior, 68, pp. 8-16. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756321630752X#bib29 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
  15. Shafran, R., Fairburn, C.G., Robinson, P., Lask, B. (2003) ‘Body checking and its avoidance in eating disorders’, International Journal of Eating Disorders, 35(1). Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eat.10228 (23 December 2020).

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