How Does Social Media Affect Body Image?
Facetune, filters, and the perfect physique are all social media trends on full display in almost any popular or "influencer" social feed. It's a common quest — find the most flattering angle and lighting, then apply a filter to display a perfectly curated set of images representing a perceived narrative.
Unfortunately, these unrealistic depictions of real-life people and situations set false expectations that run rampant in the social sphere. The consumption of these false realities creates a warped view of what is normal and acceptable and creates body image issues that transcend across age groups, socioeconomic status, and genders. This "Instagram reality" phenomenon seems to have a strong grip on society and isn't letting up anytime soon.
So what are the concerns? How does social media affect body image? And what can we do to keep ourselves and our friends, family, and loved ones grounded in reality? First, let's take a brief look at how we got here, the dangers associated with untrue realities, and how we can move forward.
The Reality of Social Media Body Image Concerns
With an estimated 3.2 billion users (about 42 percent of the population) spending an average of 90 minutes each day on social media, the content users see, read, and consume absolutely impact what they think, say, and do (Emarsys, 2019).
In 2020, when so many lives were upended, and technology became the only way to keep in touch with others, social media usage increased. And with that increase came thousands of new influencer campaigns, the rise of digital "fitness pros," and the growing concern about body image as users compared their real-life abs, thighs, and arms to the perfect angles, lighting, and editing of the accounts they follow.
What users seem to forget during mindless scrolling as that what you see is not always what you get. Some social media influencers, such as Rini Frey, a blogger who runs the account, Own It Babe, are fighting against the social media trend of showing only the best angles, lighting, and photoshopped realities. In her series, she posts images that fit the Instagram mold (angles that only show her body in the most flattering way) and then shows her body in a more natural state. Her role in the body positivity movement is to promote self-love and acceptance while revealing the tips and tricks influencers use to appear more "desirable" based on societal norms of what constitutes a good-looking body type.
Unfortunately, accounts like the one mentioned above are in the minority, and most are still falling prey to what sells, attracts more likes, and creates a false sense of self.
The Mental Effects of Instagram Reality
While there are some positives to social media — the uplifting stories, positive content, inspirational posts, and connections — the vast majority of content is produced to make individuals feel good as they embark on a posting quest to gain likes, followers and display a life that is more representative as the one they want others to see rather than the one they really have.
From this standpoint, the dangers of being too engulfed in Instagram reality are rooted in users' potential to experience anxiety and depression. This can be a direct result of comparing their own lives and appearances to others. It can also result from feeling invalidated when a post doesn't get as many "likes" or comments as someone else's content. Unfortunately, teenagers who are actively engaged on social media have the highest potential to suffer negative effects from their social feeds. But adults are by no means immune from these effects, and oftentimes, it is challenging for adults to fess up to these emotions and take action to do something to change the behaviors and emotions.
Also, the effects are more impactful as exposure increases. Therefore, anyone suffering from some anxiety and depression — or other complicated mental effects — as a direct result of social media will likely continue to suffer or become even more affected as time passes and nothing is done to curb the behaviors or address the thoughts.
5 Ways to Breakout of a Negative Social Media Cycle
So what can we do? How can we work to undo the damage and set a more realistic and positive tone moving ahead? If you are experiencing negative emotions and feelings due to social media, try some of the strategies listed below. And if you know someone who may be suffering, reach out and share this information.
- Learn to love yourself: The work toward self-acceptance starts within. By looking inward and focusing, and being grateful for the positives about who you are, what you do, and how you look, you will be less likely to let others influence how you feel about yourself.
- Limit your social media consumption: With most spending 90 or more minutes a day on social media (much of it being mindless scrolling), change what you see and how much of it you consume. Remember, the only thing you can truly control is your actions. Your emotions are not controllable, but instead, manageable. So do a check-in with yourself. Is social media making you feel less than your best? Do certain accounts make you feel inadequate? If so, ask yourself why so you can do the work. And take action to limit your exposure to the images and accounts that you feel are draining.
- Keep reality in sight: Remind yourself repeatedly that what you see is not always reality. The champagne in that glass may not be champagne. Instead, it may be grocery store apple juice. And the pool in the background may be a snapshot of a neighbor's pool in the midwest and not at a fancy LA resort as it may seem. Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words, and none of the words in the caption may be a true representation.
- Be confident in yourself: Be confident in who you are, and don't allow strangers to shape your self-image. You are uniquely you, and you have a role to fulfill in this world. No one else is you, and no one else can fulfill your unique place. Avoid letting others make you feel one way or another about yourself. Comparison is the true thief of joy.
- Live life in living color: In other words, know that life happens outside of your social feed, so focus more on what you are doing rather than what others are doing. Staring at social media and envying what others have will never get you to reach a level of success that will be fulfilling. Instead, you have to take action and do the things that make you happy and contribute positively to your wellbeing. So avoid living life in technology and get out there and do all the things that bring you joy.
As mentioned above, you can only control your actions. So if you find certain actions are making you unhappy to feeling less than your best, change them.
It will take time to combat the mental effects, which can be long-lasting, but together, we can address this societal shift in perception and make the social media world a kinder, more honest place to play.
National Suicide Prevention Line
We can all help prevent suicide. If you or a loved one needs help, please call the 24/7 toll-free Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, those seeking prevention, and those needing crisis resources to support themselves or others.