Tanned, thin and airbrushed.
That’s what Rachel Favery saw when she opened her social media apps.
She could sense it was negatively affecting how she viewed herself.
“While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these women, they represent an ideal that is generally unattainable,” she said.
“It feeds into the messages that this is what we’re supposed to look like, and that anything else is unattractive, not worth celebrating and should be hidden or changed.”
She changed who she followed on social media, opting for creators who looked more like her — “mid-sized, pale, brown hair”.
“Seeing women with my body shape, and body shapes different to mine — bodies that are not normally considered beautiful — being celebrated gave me space to celebrate my body a bit more,” she said.
And she’s not the only one.
Dr Jasmine Fardouly, who led the study published in the peer-reviewed journal Body Image, said this work focused on the effectiveness of micro-intervention.
Can even a small amount of exposure mixed with regular content have an impact?
“Our previous research suggested that exposure to body positive content on its own in a laboratory setting could improve young women’s body image, but we didn’t know whether viewing that content amongst all the other content that people usually view on social media could impact body image in women’s everyday life,” she said.
Dr Fardouly’s research focused on social influences on young people’s mental and physical health with a particular interest in understanding how social media use may impact users’ body image and mood.
She said the study found exposure to body positive content reduced how frequently young women compared their appearance to others in their everyday life.
It also found women aged 18–25 who viewed body positive posts daily over a 14-day period reported a decrease in body dissatisfaction.
Their improvements in body image were also maintained four weeks after viewing the content.
The study involved 159 Australian women signing up for three different Facebook groups; one body-positive, one neutral and one control, after completing a pre-exposure survey.
Following the exposure to the groups, participants completed a survey evaluating their body dissatisfaction, body appreciation, mood, appearance comparison tendency and intent to engage in body activism.
Body dissatisfaction in society
A 2017 online survey of 3,135 people by the Butterfly Foundation found more than one in three Australians were dissatisfied to very dissatisfied with their appearance and 73 per cent wished they could change the way they looked.
Dr Fardouly said body dissatisfaction was especially prevalent among young women and could seriously affect mental health.
“It’s an important predictor of eating disorders and depression and is also linked to some anxiety disorders,” she said.
Her research showed viewing perfectly curated images of young women could increase body dissatisfaction – making them judge themselves as less attractive.
“There’s a lot more opportunity to compare to others and internalise narrow societal appearance ideals,” she said.
“But when we’re comparing via social media, we’re not seeing the complete representation of someone; we only see their most ideal side.”
She said we needed to see bodies of different types, shapes, sizes and colours to be able to challenge society’s beauty ideals.
“As the study shows, seeing this content is a way to make social media a less harmful environment for body image,” she said.
Impact on creators
Instagram influencer Lillian Ahenkan, more commonly known as FlexMami, is concerned about the impact on creators.
“So if we’re saying that a small amount of exposure to different bodies, or bigger bodies, or whatever, would make someone feel better about their body, it’s that comparison that I find quite debilitating as someone who’s the recipient of that,” she said.
“So someone who is much smaller than me will tell me that they feel comfortable existing in their body because I’m bigger, and I like my body.”
Flex described her content as “self-indulgent” made to entertain herself as a priority.
She isn’t actively involved in the body positivity space but said some audiences had pigeon-holed her into it.
“I could not tell you how many requests I get in my DMs for being body positive,” she said.
“And I’m like, I think that I could, I could point out 50 more straight-size people in my industry who are far more body positive than I am.
“Because I happen to be fat, and not ashamed, there this is correlation that I must be doing it, I must be participating proactively in the movement.”
Neutral content as an alternative
The University of NSW study also found those who consumed neutral content – images that do not contain bodies in them, such as landscapes or items – similarly helped reduce body dissatisfaction.
“Viewing the appearance-neutral content may have given young women less opportunities to compare their appearance to others,” Dr Fourdaly said.
“Or it may have encouraged them to focus on things outside of their appearance, which may have led to less body dissatisfaction.”
Flex said this opened a wider discussion.
“It’s kind of saying to us that if you’re seeing other bodies, either risks that you are likely to feel insecure about your own, or to feel better about your own,” she says.
“So, if we take away the stimulus completely, then we don’t necessarily have the exposure to regulate how we feel about bodies.”
She says people should consider the idea of eradicating the concept of a beauty standard.
“[Then] we can’t decide that things aren’t beautiful,” she says.
“We can’t decide that there isn’t some kind of inherent standard that’s been programmed and encouraged just by virtue of looking around.”
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Small changes, big impact
Dr Fardouly said people can make minimal changes to their social media activity to reap benefits.
“In the current study, just one post a day was potentially enough to induce positive effects. More exposure may be even more effective,” she said.
Other more intensive interventions, such as online detoxing, can also be effective but she says it’s unrealistic to expect young adults to stop using social media.
“Social media isn’t going away. But as we’ve shown, it’s also not really the time you spend on it, it’s what you’re doing when you’re on it,” she said.
As most social media platforms are image and video-based, Dr Fardouly said it was even more critical for people to see content that reflects the diversity of appearance in society.
“Platforms could incorporate more diversity into their algorithms. They can choose to put more body positive content into people’s feeds and promote it more prominently,” Dr Fardouly said.
Although the findings were promising, Dr Fardouly said more research should investigate what types of body positive content best impacted women’s body image.
“We need to be critical of the content presented under the guise of body positivity,” she said.
“The quality does vary considerably, and we don’t yet know enough about the specific composition of the content that is needed to have positive effects – it’s something future research should continue to explore.”
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