Reversing Detrimental Effects of Social Media

The growth of social media in just the last few years has led it to be an increasingly common way of communication, influence, and advertisement. A large portion of this influence and advertisement is centered around the beauty industry. Although social media can be fun when used in moderation, it also serves as a source for negative messages about idolized beauty standards that promote an unhealthy obsession with dieting and weight loss.

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Idolized Beauty Standards

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “beauty standards” or, simply, “beautiful”? For many people, they may picture a thin, flawless woman with perfect curves and no visible blemishes. This is not the only depiction of beauty, however; this idolization and particular idea of beauty comes from Western beauty standards centered around the thin ideal (Perloff, 2014). Social contagion theory helps explain this effect: the focus on something within a group, such as beauty standards, causes a “crowd effect” and people start to influence each other to think the same (Grover et al., 2016).

Social media widely depicts these unrealistic beauty standards, which can cause an internalization of those stereotypes and lead many people to feel dissatisfied with their bodies (Perloff, 2014). According to the social comparison theory, people compare themselves to others to try and judge where they stand (Barron et al., 2021); if a thin body and flawless skin is the main depiction of “beautiful,” people who do not fit this ideal will feel that they are less than those people who do fit that limited standard. Women typically make upward comparisons, viewing themselves as inferior to other people, and 86% of social media users also tend to make these upward comparisons (Barron et al., 2021; Jan et al., 2017).

The problem with social media’s portrayal of beauty or attractiveness is not just a problem for women, however. Studies with young males showed that their comparisons to peers and celebrities on social media also led to body dissatisfaction, as well as a desire to be more muscular (Rodgers et al., 2020). Similar to beauty standards for women, lean and muscular are two traits commonly linked with an idolized handsome male. Results of these studies prove that disordered eating and body image concerns for both adolescent boys and girls are linked to social media (Barron et al., 2022; De Coen et al., 2021; Rodgers et al., 2020) and this is a major problem for today’s online-focused young population. Dissatisfaction with one’s body can lead to self-image and self-esteem issues, commonly coped with through maladaptive means, such as over-exercising, smoking, and eating disorders (Grover et al., 2016).

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Body Positivity Campaign

The body positivity campaign is growing in recent years, as many people are beginning to recognize that there is no single definition of beautiful. A study conducted by Lazuka et al. (2020) looked at 246 posts on Instagram, the main social media platform (Lazarević et al., 2017), and found that 38.6% of those posts depicted beauty features not considered by the Western beauty idolization. These included skin rolls, cellulite, body hair, and skin blemishes; additionally, 43% of these posts depicted bodies that would be considered overweight by the idolized definition of beauty (Lazuka et al., 2020). That’s a huge percentage of posts fighting the thin ideal, which helps women feel happier with their bodies and have a more positive mindset; multiple studies have proven this positive effect that comes from body-positive media, i.e. social media posts, songs, and music videos (Stevens & Griffiths, 2020).

When people view body-positive content, especially those who may be insecure about their bodies, they find a sense of community and are better able to redefine their definition of beauty, hopefully with the ultimate goal of finding themselves beautiful or handsome. Higher levels of self-compassion are correlated with lower levels of body dissatisfaction (Barron et al., 2021). When one is happy with their own body and compassionate to themselves, they are able to develop a more positive affect and higher level of self-esteem (Stevens and Griffiths, 2020). Self-esteem is a key factor for people’s emotional state and when people have social physique anxiety, anxiety triggered by the feeling their bodies are being evaluated, they tend to have much lower self-esteem (Lazarević et al., 2017). The body-positivity campaign is an incredible movement highlighting that all bodies and all people are beautiful. Think about all that your body does for you on a daily basis and remember to show yourself more self-compassion because there truly is no single standard of beauty or attractiveness.

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Balancing Time Online

Social media can either be a source of increased stress in one’s life, or a place where people feel welcomed and inspired. It all depends on how one uses it and internalizes the content they view. For example, the original purpose of fitspiration was to promote a healthy lifestyle and encourage people to exercise while combating thinspiration (Barron et al., 2021). Over time, however, the two combatting movements merged into one as influencers promoted fitspiration, specifically exercise, as a means only to lose weight and improve appearances (Barron et al., 2021). There are definitely more reasons for exercising since being healthy, similar to being beautiful, does not have one standard that fits every person. Some people exercise to build muscle or remain in shape, without losing weight. If fitspiration is used as originally intended, it can be a great source of inspiration for people looking into new exercise routines or tips!

There is also more to social media than posting, comment, and liking. Especially in the remote world we have been living in this past year, the Internet has become a place where people create friendships and connect with others who share their interests. There are accounts dedicated to music, makeup, sports, etc. and all of these come with a follower base of people who may develop great online and/or in-person friendships.

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Mission 4.6: Socializing & Social Media

Self-development and life management app LIFE Intelligence shows the pros and cons of social media and how to socialize in a healthy manner, online and in person. Learn why we continue to rely on social media, even when it presents some negative consequences, and how to develop a healthy mindset that fights against any rumination of the unrealistic standards we may see online.

Chiara Nicholas
August 16, 2021

Barron, A. M., Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Harriger, J. A. (2021). The effects of fitspiration and self-compassion Instagram posts on body image and self-compassion in men and women. Body Image, 37, 14–27.

De Coen, J., Verbeken, S., & Goossens, L. (2021). Media influence components as predictors of children’s body image and eating problems: A longitudinal study of boys and girls during middle childhood. Body Image, 37, 204–213.

Grover. A., Foreman, J., & Burckes-Miller, M. (2016). “Infecting” those we care about: social network effects on body image. International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing, 10(3), 323–338. 10.1108/IJPHM-09-2014-0052

Jan, M., Soomro, S.A., & Ahmad, N. (2017). Impact of Social Media on Self-Esteem. European Scientific Journal, 13, 329-329. 10.19044/esj.2017.v13n23p329

Lazarević, L. B., Lazarević, D., & Orlić, A. (2017). Predictors of students’ self-esteem: The importance of body self-perception and exercise. Psihološka Istraživanja, 20(2), 239–254. 10.5937/PsIstra1702239L

Lazuka, R. F., Wick, M. R., Keel, P. K., & Harriger, J. A. (2020). Are We There Yet? Progress in Depicting Diverse Images of Beauty in Instagram’s Body Positivity Movement. Body Image, 34, 85–93.

Perloff, R. (2014). Social Media Effects on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns: Theoretical Perspectives and an Agenda for Research. Sex Roles, 71(11–12), 363–377.

Rodgers, R. F., Slater, A., Gordon, C. S., McLean, S. A., Jarman, H. K., & Paxton, S. J. (2020). A Biopsychosocial Model of Social Media Use and Body Image Concerns, Disordered Eating, and Muscle-Building Behaviors among Adolescent Girls and Boys. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 49(2), 399–409.

Stevens, A., & Griffiths, S. (2020). Body Positivity (#BoPo) in everyday life: An ecological momentary assessment study showing potential benefits to individuals’ body image and emotional wellbeing. Body Image, 35, 181–191.

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