Instagrammable: social media and body image

Erin Kernohan-Berning

2/7/20245 min read

clay head art pieces of various sizes, shapes, and colours
clay head art pieces of various sizes, shapes, and colours

In February 2023, researchers from three Ontario universities and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario published a study showing that teens and young adults who decreased their social media use by 50% showed improvement in how they felt about their weight and overall appearance within a three-week period.

In this randomized control trial, 220 participants aged 17-25 years were selected from an introductory psychology course at a Canadian university if they were already regular social media users and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety or depression. Using screen time reports, participants were randomly selected to reduce their social media use to 1 hour per day. At the end of the study, participants who had reduced their social media use reported improvements in body image.

Social media is often blamed for body image issues among people of all ages, particularly teens and young adults. Platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Snapchat are full of celebrities promoting unrealistic beauty standards and feature digital filters that can sculpt and airbrush any selfie into someone unrecognizable with just a tap. There are wellness and beauty influencers that spread health misinformation in order to sell supplements and diet products. An entire genre of videos referred to as “grocery store walkers” features influencers walking down the aisles of popular stores like Costco fearmongering about very common ingredients found in safe and affordable foods.

Unrealistic beauty standards and body image issues pre-date the internet and social media. Take for instance the romanticization of tuberculosis. Dr. Carolyn Day, author of Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease, has described how thinness, a pale complexion, and the rosy flush of fever became a popular look in the 19th century. Cosmetics were marketed to healthy women, some containing dangerous ingredients such as belladonna and arsenic, to emulate the appearance of dying from a very horrible disease.

Most readers, when thinking back to the late 20th century, can probably recall at least one arbitrary beauty ideal that brought with it some loss of confidence. The Twiggy-esque figure of the 1960s, the rise of Weight Watchers and other similar fad diet programs, the heroin chic look of the 1990s, celebrity beach body issues of tabloids lining the grocery store checkout line, just to name a few. As a society well before social media we were inundated with messaging that our bodies are not good enough unless they look a certain way.

This is not to say that social media has nothing to do with fostering poor body image – but blaming social media alone misses both the social pressures around beauty standards and how social media itself can potentially combat the problem. A study from the University of Surrey, in England, exposed 207 young men and women to images of idealized body types or body types of varying sizes, shapes and features. They found that those exposed to images of idealized body types had more feelings of negative body image, while those who were exposed to different varying body types had more feelings of positive body image.

In 2022, a video made the rounds on social media of Magic Mike leading man Channing Tatum being interviewed on the Kelly Clarkson Show. When a photo of his ultra-lean physique from the movie was shown on the big screen behind him, Tatum said that obtaining that body ideal was not healthy for him and that he hesitated to go through that process again. The video generated discussion among viewers about how the images we are exposed to greatly skew what we think is realistic and normal for a body to look like.

Author of The Body Issue, Nealie Tan Ngo, says in the AMA Journal of Ethics “…poor body image is more sinister than just not feeling happy with the way one looks. […] physical bodies are social bodies; beauty is linked to our perceptions of health, wealth, power, and overall success…” As such, Western beauty standards disproportionately harm black, indigenous, and women of colour, 2SLGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, middle-aged and senior women, and people in larger bodies, by slotting humans into those hierarchies based on appearance.

The idea that there is no perfect body, and that all bodies are good bodies, is central to the body positivity movement. Body positivity attempts to foster positive body image regardless of what beauty standard of the day society is feeding us. Creators like actress Jameela Jamil and body positivity advocate Taryn Brumfitt are just two of many who make it their mission to increase acceptance for all body types. Promoting and engaging with this kind of content on social media can help us understand that our bodies have value beyond the often unrealistic beauty standards we are fed in our media – social or otherwise.

Learn more

Correction Log

Negative impact of social media on body image

Reducing social media use significantly improves body image in teens, young adults. 2023. Gary Goldfield. (American Psychological Association) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Reducing Social Media Use Improves Appearance and Weight Esteem in Youth with Emotional Distress,” by Helen Thai, BA, McGill University; Christopher Davis, PhD, Wardah Mahboob, MA, Sabrina Perry, BA, and Alex Adams, BA, Carleton University; and Gary Goldfield, PhD, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Psychology of Popular Media, published online Feb. 23, 2023. Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Media and body image. 2011. Go Ask Alice. (Columbia University) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

How Social Media Can Harm Your Body Image. 2023. Cleveland Clinic. Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Body Image. National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Last accessed 2024/02/06.

The Impact of Social Media on Body Image & Mental Health. 2022. LifeLines. (University of Alberta) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

How Social Media Affects Body Image and Eating Behavior. 2023. Jessica M. Alleva. (Psychology Today) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Instagram fuels both body-image issues and social connections, teen girls say. 2021. Mark Gollom. (CBC) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Online digital media use and adolescent mental health. 2023. Stacie Kerr and Mila Kingsbury. (Statistics Canada) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Debunking Diet Gurus: How to Spot Fear-Based Marketing with Andy Miller. 2023. Rob Lapham, Andy Miller, Liam Layton. (YouTube) 2024/02/06.

Beauty standards and society

Tuberculosis: from Victorian fashion to citizen science. 2018. Dr. Carolyn Day. (YouTube) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion. 2016. Emily Mullin. (Smithsonian Magazine) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

On Tuberculosis, Beauty Standards, and Toulouse-Lautrec. 2022. John Green. (YouTube) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Beauty Standards. 2021. Kate Povey. (University of Washington - The Manifold) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

When beauty matters: the politics of how we look. 2016. University of Cambridge. Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Black Women in Sport and the Weaponization of Beauty Standards. 2022. Dr. Charles Malveaux. (Psychiatric Times) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

How Western beauty standards affect young teen girls vs. older women. 2023. Shadiyaseid. (Medium) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Men and body image issues. 2015. Go Ask Alice. (Columbia University) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Channing Tatum Got Real About the Fact That His ‘Magic Mike’ Body Isn’t “Natural” or “Even Healthy”. 2022. Kayleigh Roberts. (Cosmopolitan) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Older women and body image: beauty standards are not democratic. 2017. Dr. Francesca Ghillani. (The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

How beauty standards for LGBTQ people impact body image, mental health. 2022. Pratyush Dayal. (CBC) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

No Pain, No Gain: Portrayals of Beauty in Reality TV. 2022. Nikita Johnson. (Gettysburg College) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

What Historical Ideals of Women’s Shapes Teach Us About Women’s Self-Perception and Body Decisions Today. 2019. Nealie Tan Ngo. (AMA Journal of Ethics) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Body positivity and social media

The past, present, and future of body image in America. 2021. Anna North. (Vox) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

The paradox of online “body positivity”. 2021. Rebecca Jennings. (Vox) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Body positive images on social media boost body satisfaction for men and women. 2024. (News-Medical.Net) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Does body positivity work for men as it does for women? The impact of idealized body and body positive imagery on body satisfaction, drive for thinness, and drive for muscularity. 2024. Fabio Fasoli and Despoina Constantinou. Acta Psychologica. Last accessed 2024/02/06.

Taryn Brumfitt - Australian of the Year. 2023. ABC News Australia. (TikTok) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

I Weigh with Jameela Jamil. (Earwolf) Last accessed 2024/02/06.

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