Role Modelling Body Positive Social Media Use

BY Zali Yager

As adults, we are all worried about the impact of social media on adolescents’ body image – but have we ever stopped to think about the effects of social media on the way we think and feel about our own bodies?

We are a generation who grew up through the 80s and 90s. A time when big corporations decided what would be in our magazines and the images that we would see. It was a time of supermodels, and a very narrow concept of what was beautiful. A time of diets on the front page of magazines, and diets as crazy as the cabbage soup diet. Also, people ate grapefruits with sugar on them for breakfast, and that’s just wrong!

We now have so much more control over what we are exposed to – we can follow and unfollow with the click of a button. But so many women still expose themselves to these very narrow beauty ideals via before-and-after photos, #fitspiration and thin models.

UK research has found that Instagram is the social media platform with the most negative impact, and specifically decreases body image. A study in the US found women’s body image started to decrease even after 7 minutes of using Instagram. It can be damaging but it’s also an awesome platform, so if you want to use social media and not feel bad about yourself, read on…

The reason why we feel bad when we look at images of models, celebrities and even our peers is because our brain makes automatic comparisons with these people. We look at them, determine that we are not as thin/muscular/attractive/worthy as them, and it makes us feel bad. Decades of research has proven this. There is nothing about seeing these images that motivates us, inspires us or helps us to change our behaviour.

This is particularly the case with #fitspiration. Recent research has also confirmed that viewing fitspiration leads to increases in body dissatisfaction, and is worse for body image than viewing idealised thin images. In some studies , participants reported that fitspiration inspired them to exercise, but this did not translate into increases in exercise behaviour. Fitspiration literally doesn’t even do what it sets out to do in encouraging you to engage in physical activity – #unfollow.

In contrast, multiple studies have now shown that viewing images of average-sized models has been found to enhance body appreciation, or positive body image. To test this, researchers bring people into a lab or send them images to look at. Some women are shown images of more diverse-sized women, and other women are shown more traditional advertising using thin women. Researchers have consistently found that in these studies, the women who see more diverse-sized women walk out of that room with a better body image and in a better mood than the women who have seen images of thin models. Evaluations of media campaigns that use real women of all sizes, such as This Girl Can, found that these campaigns increased appearance satisfaction and intentions to exercise.

Multiple studies also show that you can use social media – especially Instagram – to enhance body image, as long as you are following body positive (BOPO) accounts.

Helping our Teens

When our young people start to be more independent around their social media use, we can still ensure that we have some influence. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Encourage them to be selective about the content they are consuming. Science says you should fill your feed with pictures of things other than people – travel, photography, art, nature, animals. If you are going to see people, it’s better if they are ‘real’ images of diverse sizes and shapes. Research has confirmed the fact that you can’t use an ‘idealised’ image and put a warning label or body positive hashtag on it. The only way to look at images of people and have it be good for you is to look at images that show diversity and realness – hair, pimples, pores, scars, cellulite, stretch marks, lumps, bumps. All the things that Photoshoppers would remove are the things we need to see to remind ourselves that we are all normal and human.
  2. Fix your feeds together. Go through and unfollow anything that makes you/them feel bad. Talk about the importance of being selective, and using your power to choose what you see, but also to show your support for organisations or people who are doing things that are aligned with your values.
  3. Question and be curious. When you/your kids see certain images or videos, come in with curiosity and ask ‘why?’ Why might they have done that? Why are they saying this? Is someone paying them to do that? Are they just doing that to get likes? Encouraging them to see things through a more critical lens can be helpful in reducing the negative effects of these images.
  4. Show restraint. We complain that our kids are on their screens all the time, but we’re kind of addicted too, right? If you’re trying to rein in their screen time, it can be good to start with something that limits your use a little too…

Not all social media is bad. Viewing and engaging with body positive accounts, following brands that use diverse-sized models, and unfollowing the ones that make you feel bad can have a positive impact on both your Insta experience and your psychological health.

Meet The Author,
Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of The Embrace Collective [TEC], a DGR-status health promotion charity on a mission to help people everywhere build better body image. In her research position as Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Zali was also the Chief Investigator on the Goodform project for boys, a WADA-funded, randomised controlled trial of this 4-session school-based program.Connect with Zali via LinkedInInstagram and her website. Find out more about The Embrace Collective on Instagram. Sign up for the EK Support Squad to receive body image resources and support for young people.
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