In recent months, the topic of body image has been a widely discussed media topic in response to two announcements: 1) Toy maker, Mattel’s debut of “curvy” Barbie, and 2) Ashley Graham, a plus size model, making the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition magazine. Mattel’s Barbie, classically known as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, ill -proportioned doll, will now be available in three body shapes: petite, curvy, and tall. Graham, an undeniably beautiful woman and a positive body-image activist, becomes the largest woman to grace the cover of SI’s swimsuit edition.
Journalists, bloggers, and other media figures have “weighed” in on these announcements. Regardless of our personal perspective on these issues, these two headlines demonstrate the mainstream discussion of body image. Western society tends to build our content for these conversations on two things: 1) Innate replications of the female body (in toys, cartoon characters, action figures, etc.) or 2) Models. While I absolutely believe that these are important pieces in society’s discussion about body image, I think we are missing a critical piece of the conversation altogether.
It is easy for us to discuss body image when the story headline is about a “curvy” Barbie, or a “plus size model” breaking industry norms, and yet, when it comes to our daily actions, we shy away. While I firmly believe that we need to be aware of the unspoken norms we set with the toys we give to children, the advertisements to which they are exposed, and the models to whom they may look up; I also think we need to be critically examining the ways in which we behave on a daily basis.
I think it is time to broaden our conversations about body image. We need to talk about the real bodies that we (and our children) see regularly on social media.
As social media becomes a routine part of daily life in the west, it is imperative that we critically examine the impact of this new media form on body image. At a point in time in which nearly all of our social media communities are image based platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Periscope, Tumblr, YouTube, Pinterest, Vine, and Snapchat, to name a few), we must pause to think about the ways in which the images on these sites impact the adults and the children who view and use them. Have you ever caught yourself making a judement about how you look on an image you were going to post to social media? I know I have.
The Social Media Revolution
Before I go any further, let me provide a little context. I am a member of the social media generation. I am a social media user- holding both personal and business accounts on a multitude of social media forums.
I lived the first 18 years of my life without the image-based social media platforms that we have today. Those were the days in which the only people who saw you on any given day, were those whom you encountered face-to-face. The days where thoughts were either in your head, written with pen or pencil, or spoken aloud. The days when a photograph had to be developed at the local store.
And while traditional media mediums (television, magazines, even the Internet), portrayed a certain idea of “beauty” during this time, I also grew up in a generation that was educated about Photoshop. I was constantly reminded that images of fashion models were altered- not only with makeup and wigs- but with a computer, and they were not a measuring stick to which I should compare myself. A conversation we continue to have with our youth today.
But I also grew up in the midst of the social media revolution. I’m a member of the generation with the ability to document and share every moment, every thought, every sight, every day, at any point in time. The generation that has the ability to connect with, to learn from, and to engage people all over the world thanks to social media.
With the rise of social media, we find ourselves no longer solely looking to innate objects, or to Photoshopped celebrities for ideals of beauty, but rather to our “friends,” to our peers, to those with whom we connect on social media on a daily basis. In a sense, the magazine full of fashion models and advertisements has been overtaken by these social media platforms. As I “flip through” my social media accounts, I see more peers than fashion models.
Simultaneously, social media platforms are one of the most salient marketing platforms in our modern world. In the Trusted Clothes community, we use social media to share information about ethical, sustainable fashion, we post images of models in our clothing, we show the raw materials that go into our clothes, and the landfills filled with discarded clothing. We show happy- or serious- women wearing our clothes, subliminally communicating the message that these clothes will make you happy, or will give you friends, or will make you look avant-garde, or like a high-fashion model. And our “followers” see this alongside the “highlight reel” of their peers’ personal lives.
And so I think we must ask the question, “what are these visual social media platforms doing to the way(s) in which we, as a society, communicate what is “beautiful”?”
While I don’t have all the answers, I think it is a question that we must ask. A question that we reflect upon as we talk to young people about true beauty.
Three Things Research tells us about Facebook use and Body Image
What influence do visual social media platforms (such as Instagram, Facebook, Periscope, Tumblr, YouTube, Vine, and Snapchat) have on the way(s) that we, as a society, communicate what is “beautiful”?
This is the question I sought to answer through research I conducted in 2012 and 2013, focused on the impact of Facebook use on Attitudes Towards Appearance in college-age women.
– What did we already know? –
Research indicates that adolescents and young adults spend significant amounts of time and energy on Facebook. Facebook is the second most frequented website in America, and the third most frequented site in Canada (after Google, and YouTube). Not only are college students spending time on the site, but that they spend energy using the site, updating, checking, and engaging in activities on Facebook. One prominent Facebook activity is the posting of, and looking at, pictures.
The prevalence of photos on Facebook allows it to be uniquely situated to influence a woman’s body image. Body image is a multidimensional construct that includes psychological, sociological and physiological dimensions relative to one’s attitude toward one’s own body. Body image strongly influences female development, particularly for college-aged women whom studies have found to be most influenced by negative body image.
Research has identified three primary influences on the formation of female body image:
- Socio-cultural factors (media, racial/ethnic background, sexual orientation, etc.),
- Family/peer influences, and
- Personal characteristics (i.e. personal emphasis on appearance, perfectionism, etc.).
The prevalence of photographs on Facebook causes it to be uniquely situated to influence a woman’s body image at all three of these points of influence: social networking sites are a new media form (sociocultural influence), they provide the potential for peer and family influence through social online connections, and they provide the opportunity for personal characteristics (such as a focus on appearance) to be acted upon in an online setting. So is there a relationship between Facebook use and body image among women?
In order to better understand this relationship, we gathered data from young women enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program at a mid-sized private university in the Northeastern United States. Data were gathered using a 38-question survey and three focus groups. Here’s what we found:
- Facebook is a socio-cultural force acting like traditional media outlets when it comes to women’s attitudes toward appearance.
First, we created (and statistically verified), a new survey to measure socio-cultural attitudes toward appearance related to Facebook use and interaction (We called this the Sociocultural Attitudes Toward Appearance Questionnaire- Facebook Scale (SATAQ-FS); modeled after one of the most prominent tools to measure people’s attitudes toward appearance- the Sociocultural Attitudes Toward Appearance Questionnaire-3. Our verification of this survey indicates that Facebook acts as a traditional media form (i.e. television/ fashion magazines) in relation to female attitudes toward appearance. This suggests that we need to add Facebook to the conversation that we have when we educate young girls and women about the impact of (often photoshopped/ heavily made up) women they see on television and in fashion magazines (and on Facebook), on their body image.
- Women who are more concerned with appearance are more aware of their body image due to Facebook use –AND– Women who are single are more aware of their body image due to Facebook use.
Our survey findings indicated statistically significant differences among various groups of women. Women with a high appearance orientation (meaning that they placed a high value on appearance) were significantly more likely to perceive Facebook as a source of information about attractiveness, were more likely to make comparisons between themselves and others on Facebook, and were more likely to experience appearance related pressure on the site. Additionally, women who were single were significantly more likely to view Facebook as a source of information than women who were in a “complicated” relationship, and were more likely to make appearance-related comparisons on Facebook than women who were in romantic relationships.
- Facebook is used for impression management and the relationship between Facebook use and body image is complex and often nuanced.
Our findings from the focus group suggest that women use photos on Facebook to manage their identity and that the relationship between Facebook use and body image is complex and often nuanced. Participants noted using Facebook photos as a basis for downward comparisons (placing others above themselves), and highlighted the negative impact that comments on photos can have on body image, yet simultaneously spoke about actively engaging in impression management to create a positive body image on Facebook.
Negative influences on body image were primarily related to comments on photos and to appearance-comparisons. Facebook ‘friends’ may negatively impact a woman’s body image (even unintentionally) through comments made on photos. As one participant explained, “if there’s a picture of two people and somebody comments, ‘oh my gosh,’ like you know, ‘Catherine you look so pretty’ and I was in the picture, like okay, cool, thanks, what am I?” Simultaneously appearance-based comparisons negatively affect body image. As one woman shared, “there’s definitely the appearance aspect of comparing yourself… like oh they’ve changed a lot…or they’ve gotten thinner or they’ve gotten heavier … and then you start worrying about whether people are saying that about you.” Participants believed that comparing themselves to others was “natural” and that “everyone does it.” They explained that these comparisons “are not exclusive to Facebook, it’s just that Facebook makes it easier [to do so].”
However, the women also spoke about various ways in which they work to manage their
online impression in such a way that it boosts self-image. One way they did this was to filter the photos that were posted according to the appropriateness of the photo (“would my mother approve?”), their physical appearance (“how do I look?”), and their social appearance (do I look happy?). In addition to filtering what they posted, the women also managed their online identity by “un-tagging” (removing from their page) photos that others’ posted of them. The most common reason for untagging a photo was displeasure with their physical appearance. This process led some participants to believe that Facebook can be a positive influence on body image because people post their “best selves.” It was explained, “You control exactly what’s on your page…obviously, if you think it’s an unflattering picture you’re not going to put up something that you hate yourself in. And even getting tagged in pictures, you have the option to untag…so every time you go on Facebook it’s not … in your face there, so I feel like you can make it so that it’s good for your body image because if you strictly keep it to pictures that you like of yourself then it’ll be good for your self confidence.” Thus, our research found that Facebook carries with it the potential to positively or negatively impact a woman’s body image.
– So What?-
These findings provide an important contribution in the research towards understanding
how photos on Facebook relate to female body image.
The verification of our survey (SATAQ-FS) indicates that Facebook can be understood as a socio-cultural force that acts like traditional media outlets that may influence attitudes towards appearance. As such, Facebook has the potential to positively or negatively impact a woman’s body image much in the same way as media outlets like fashion magazines and television.
Our research suggests that women are more aware of their body image due to their use of Facebook, but for women who are single and/ or who have a high appearance orientation, Facebook has a greater influence on body image. In addition, participants reported using photos on Facebook to manage their online identity. At times, Facebook photos (and the comments made on photos) led to more positive thoughts about their body, but at other times, it served to harm their body image.
As technology advances and social media become a daily part of media consumption for young women, psychoeducational programs must be developed that promote awareness among women about the impact that social media, like Facebook, can have on body image and self-esteem. Young women need to be aware of how these photographs, and the way in which they internalize meaning from these photographs, may impact their body image and their larger understanding of personal identity.
*Research was conducted under the advisement of Dr. Edward Fierros, Chairman of the Department of Education and Counseling at Villanova University.
About the Author
Amanda Brown is an ethical fashion curator, a natural beauty believer and a body image researcher. She is the owner and founder of Sweet Lupine, an online boutique on a mission to provide ethically made clothing and accessories to women while reminding them of their inherent beauty. Prior to launching Sweet Lupine, Amanda worked as a teacher, counselor, and researcher; she holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication and a master’s degree in Counseling from Villanova University.