It’s official — Instagram is the worst social media site for mental health. All social media sites have a potentially detrimental effect on the way we feel, but Instagram, with its heavy focus on imagery, has a particularly negative impact on one specific area: body image. Instagram isn’t the instigator of body image issues, of course, but instead a heavily-filtered reflection of a culture that objectifies, sexualises and commodifies the human body, while promoting unattainable and unrealistic standards of what beauty is.
Beauty is subjective, yet rarely seen in the beholder’s reflection. Global research by Dove discovered just 4 percent of women find themselves beautiful, while simultaneously, 80 percent acknowledge all women have something beautiful about them. This negative self-perceptions begins a young age, with girls as young as six-years-old having expressed body-related anxiety. If unchecked, such bodily insecurities can turn into Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), causing “persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance,” leading to “severe emotional distress and difficulties in daily functioning.”
Social media sites, particularly Instagram, have been challenged to do more to combat this growing societal concern. But how can we take control and learn to love our bodies, when the forces of society thrive on us feeling insecure in our own skin?
This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.
Advertising And Beauty Standards
“All we’ve ever wanted,
Is to look good naked,
Hope that someone can take it,
God save me rejection,
From my reflection,
I want perfection” — Robbie Williams, Bodies
Say hello to the beauty industry, a persuasive and pervasive money-making machine convincing the masses we need to improve our appearance. More and more of us don’t like the way we look. As a result, this industry — the cousin of fashion — is growing rapidly. At twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP, to be precise. Skin care alone is worth $24 billion per year, make-up $18 billion, haircare $38 billion. A report by the British Youth Council, A Body Confident Future, highlighted the “massive” role such industries have in setting idealised images of beauty. This comes at cost — a third of young people say media influence has made them feel the need to lose weight.
It’s not hard to see why. From a young age, we are all immersed in an environment rigidly defining beauty on their behalf, from adverts to fashion magazines to billboards to Hollywood. Look around you, and you’ll see a variation of all shapes and sizes, with no two bodies the same. Look at the media, and the same perfectly honed (and electronically retouched) body shapes appear, over and over again. Women are expected to defy logic by attaining the “curves in the right places and not much everywhere else” look. Men are expected to do their best impression of Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, with bulging biceps, washboard abs, a full chest and muscular legs.
Profit — The Reason Your Body Isn’t Good Enough
Sadly, we live in a world where conglomerates like Goldman Sachs question whether curing illness is a sustainable business model. Western culture’s portrayal of conventional beauty is moulded by the same profit-making agenda. Body positivity and revenue don’t fit. If encouraged to age gracefully and embrace wrinkles, would people spend millions on expensive skin care? If encouraged embrace our natural hair, would people use straighteners, or buy hair-thickening shampoo?
Anxiety around appearance isn’t vanity or a case of millions wanting to look nice. Consumer culture consistently tells us we need things to be successful and happy. Advertising no longer sells products, it sells lifestyles. The beauty industry sells us the idea that a beautiful appearance, dictated by their idea of beauty, is the key to success and self-worth. We want to look good because we’ve been told looking good is living a successful life. But the people shaping this falsehood earn money from our endeavours to look “better.”
The Deception And Exclusion Of Mainstream Body Positivity
The Body Positive movement is the mainstream media’s response to body image issues. Body positivity is vital, of course, but the profit-agenda is still at play. “Brands may pay lip service to the idea of diversity but continue to emphasise the message that some conventional ideals of beauty are important,” according to A Body Confident Future. The movement is defined by ever-so-slightly-altered standards. Or as plus-size fashion blogger Stephanie Yeboah put it, “body positivity seems to only serve those who fit the ‘acceptably fat’ description: white, beautiful by Westernised standards, and small/hourglass shaped.” Anyone outside of these standards — the vast majority — is cast aside.
“I went to a strip club in Nigeria and it was really interesting because I’d never seen women who actually look like me. A lot of the time I just see white bodies, but they were all black women with different shades of brown skin. They had very different body types — some were like mine, some weren’t like mine. I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing!’ It gave me confidence.” (F)
For example, women of colour are still marginalised in all aspects of beauty. This ranges from a lack of make-up options for women with darker skin, to Grazia magazine editing Lupita Nyong’o’s hair to “fit a Eurocentric idea of what beautiful hair looks like.” The Western idea that fair skin is beautiful ripples across the globe, too, resulting in worldwide “rampant darker skin stigma,” or colourism. Colourism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” It’s instigated by institutional racism but isn’t exclusively race-related.
Follow the money and you’ll find the continual rise of a skin bleaching industry expected to acquire $31.2 billion by 2024.
Let’s Talk About Sex(ualisation)It’s impossible to discuss body image in the media without also discussing sex. Using sex to sell degrades the human body, turning it into an object existing for the viewing pleasure of others. This is a facet of a hyper-sexualised culture, perpetuating objectification in all forms of media. Nowhere is this more evident than the porn industry. The internet has made porn more accessible than ever; in 2017, PornHub received 81 million hits. Daily. Across the year, 28.5 billion hits resulted in 68 years worth of porn being uploaded.
Although porn use in general shouldn’t be a cause of shame, the majority of online videos depict inauthentic, friction-heavy and genital-focused intercourse. By portraying unrealistic gender stereotypes, it influences how men and women feel they should look and behave in an intimate setting. It’s an industry with an underlying, venomous and sometimes violent attitude toward preserving the status quo of gender inequality. Women are shown as submissive bystanders, existing to serve male desire. Although porn feels distant from mainstream media, they share the same destructive aspects, the latter in a diluted form.
The Beauty Myth
Author Naomi Wolf deconstructs objectification and beauty in The Beauty Myth, a titular theory “prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” In her framework, beauty needs to first be approved by men in order to be validated. According to Wolf, this dynamic limits women’s freedom because their behaviour, as well as appearance, is scrutinised — including the way they walk, talk, dress, and interact.
The Iron Maiden is a term Wolf applies to societal expectations and assumptions about the female body. Wolf argues unattainable images of beauty are used to punish women. Any female not conforming is made to feel “monstrous,” despite being physically functional:
“A man’s thigh is for walking, but a woman’s is for walking and looking ‘beautiful.’ If women can walk but believe our limbs look wrong, we feel that our bodies cannot do what they are meant to do; we feel as genuinely deformed and disabled as the unwilling Victorian hypochondriac felt ill.”
Though written in 1991, the myth is still relevant. A 2014 report by the UK’s Government Equalities Office, The Watched Body, highlights how women in leadership roles are expected to adhere to perceived feminine traits in order to be respected. A 1997 study referred to this as the objection theory, where women are frequently “looked at as objects by society, with a sexual focus being placed on their bodies rather than on their abilities.”
Men, Muscle Mass And Eating Disorders
Body images issues aren’t exclusive to women, though. Men used to be conditioned for nonchalance, a squirt of Old Spice and a hurried sink wash. But a shift in masculine stereotypes has seen the male population become more concerned their bodies’ appearance. Last year it was reported eating disorders had risen 70 percent in men, in only a six year period. In another study, 45 percent of men said they’ve experienced a period of “bigorexia,” an obsession with muscle building. Although gender bias with body image issues can make it more difficult for men to speak openly about their insecurities, the insecurities are certainly there.
“Pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder,” Dr William Rhys Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, told the Guardian. “Images of unhealthy male body ideals in the media place unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.” These unhealthy images for men focus on an increasingly muscular, low fat physique.
“Body image has been an issue for me since secondary school, especially playing rugby and other sports in an all-boys school. I often felt inferior or weaker, and the pressure was quite high to workout and get big, which I didn’t achieve to the same extent as most.” — M
Hollywood is often a reliable reflection of its time, including changing definitions of beauty. Look no further than the superhero genre, the most lucrative and popular in modern cinema. The likes of Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Chris Evans (Captain America), Henry Cavill (Superman), Ben Affleck (Batman), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Chris Pratt (Star-Lord) saturate the media with images of their bulked up physiques. Away from superheroes, contrast Daniel Craig’s physique as James Bond with Roger Moore or Sean Connery, or Dwayne Johnson or Zac Efron with David Hasselhoff in Baywatch.
There’s also a growing trend of using these examples — attained by 24/7 devotion and support from the world’s leading nutritionists and personal trainers — as ways to inspire the Average Joe to pick up some iron. News outlets shared inside scoops on the A-list’s workout routines and diet, while social media is awash with behind-the-scenes clips. Apparently it’s easy, if only you know how.
The Rise Of Bigorexia
It’s not only acting royalty who promote unrealistic mass. Reality television — tabloid in TV form — presents objectification and beauty standards without restraint. Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in addiction at the University of York, apportioned blame in the rise of male body image issues on show’s such as Love Island, combined with social media. “In some ways young men have been catching up with young women over the last few years, they are more sensitive and vigilant about how they should look and this is becoming more acute,” he told The Telegraph. “I think it is to do with appearance and masculinity, and the messages we absorb through social media.”
“I really dislike wearing shorts in public because I genuinely feel like my legs from the knee down are weird. The internet creates a world where we compare, compare, compare, and so when I go out in summer and men are all wearing shorts, I can’t help but compare my legs to other’s. Most of the time it leads to some kind of negative feeling.” — M
Back in the day a little Burt Reynolds chest fuzz or Sean Connery’s realistically slim physique were seen as attractive. Now, muscle is mistaken for “manliness.” Consequently, a growing number of men experience muscle dysmorphia, the mistaken belief they aren’t muscular enough. It affects 10 percent of gym-going men in the UK (and, important to note, some women too). It’s natural to automatically assume vanity is the root cause, but muscle dysmorphia is defined instead as shame over one’s appearance. According to a 2016 study, men experiencing muscle dysmorphia mistakenly believe mass is an outward showing of inner strength, an indicator of success, sexual prowess, and so on. The result? In 2017, steroid use quadrupled amongst 16-24-year-olds in the UK. It’s the only drug with increased usage.
My Struggle With Body Image And Muscularity
I’ve always fixated on my body. When I was really young, I was chubby-cheeked and curly haired. Looking at photographs, I look cute (even if I say so myself), but at the time I stressed about being fat. Before going on holiday with family friends who were naturally slimmer, I’d stand in front of the mirror in my trunks and pinch the fat around my body, willing it to go away and wishing I looked different. In my teens I was concerned for different reasons — I was a late bloomer. I was embarrassed as my peers developed hair in strange places, an outward sign of adulthood, while I was left behind.
To make matters more confusing, my body composition changed dramatically when I was 15. Not via exercise or a healthy diet, but glandular fever. Bedridden for weeks, my throat filled with a thousand paper cuts, I couldn’t eat and lost around three stone (40+ lbs). Now I felt stickly thin. I felt I lacked muscular definition and strength. I wanted to feel manly. I was insecure, and my insecurity was validated when people would comment on my weight loss. Apparently, it seems socially acceptable to call a guy skinny, despite this being a common insecurity in men.
Weightlifting was the remedy. With trepidation and high anxiety, I signed up to my local gym when I was 18. On my first session, I looked around at brawny, tattooed Bristolians bicep curling my body weight. I attempted to bench press just the bar to “ease into it.” It was too heavy. No one warned me the bar was forged from Valyrian steel. Anyway, I persisted and eventually gained muscle. I’ve continued to train regularly, and my weight has shifted up and down. Even now, I frequently compare myself to men who are much bigger or stronger or more ripped than I am, like chasing my shadow with Men’s Health under one arm, a protein shake under the other and a sense of despair as to why I couldn’t pack on 30lb of lean mass in 30 days or look like Tyler Durden in six weeks.
Instagram’s Influence On Body Image
“I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop,
Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor,
Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks” — Kendrick Lamar, HUMBLE
What about Instagram’s influence on body image? Due to its user-driven dynamic, there’s an expectation Instagram is authentic. Ideally, social media should be the antithesis of the illusions portrayed in the mainstream. Just normal people uploading normal images of their normal lives. Well, not quite. The feverish quest for profit finds its way into anything if there’s opportunity to advertise. Instagram is no different. ‘Grammers with a substantial following earn a tidy sum promoting products via the medium. Fitness “influencers,” for example, regularly make six figures for campaigns shared on their profiles. Those with six-packs and six-figure followings frequently earn $5,000 or more for a single sponsored post.
“When I’m in a good mood, I have no urge to look at Instagram. But when I’m having a day where I feel down, I’ll spend time stuck in the scroll-loop. Inevitably, I end up comparing myself to the women I see online, and I feel even worse.” — F
Though plenty use Instagram to challenge conventional standards, beauty standards have infiltrated social media. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian (who has 110 million followers) regularly receive millions of likes, but they present heavily-doctored snippets of meticulously pruned unrealities. Often, they’ll post airbrushed photographs. Sometimes, they get caught. These airbrushed images mix with photos of friends and family, with no distinction other than a blue tick. Further still, they aren’t images taken on the catwalk or during a photoshoot — they’re “authentic,” behind-the-scenes selfies with everyday, humanising captions. This camouflage erodes the boundaries between the glitz and glamour and us muggles.
I suspect Instagram’s influence on negative body image is enhanced because the nature of the platform catches people off-guard. If you pick up a copy of Vogue, you’re prepared for what you’re about to see. Using Instagram’s perceived authenticity to spread the same unattainable standards of beauty is arguably more sinister, more deceitful.
Instagram and Self-Objectification
This desire to conform to beauty standards is tantalising and has a drip-down effect into everything we do. Unwittingly, as we assimilate the media’s powerful messages, we internalise and reproduce those same ideas. Uploading images to social media conforming with beauty standards is a form of self-objectification. This occurs when objectification is internalised and the person views their body as an object to be evaluated. This is far from a superficial issue, either. There’s a whole host of evidence highlighting the damaging impact self-objectification has on one’s well being, including body shame, appearance anxiety, eating disorders and depression. In men, it has been identified as a precursor to steroid use.
This isn’t a modern phenomenon, but social media accentuates the process. Most of us will be guilty of doctoring our appearance on Instagram, whether in the form of filters, choosing an image from a selection of many, or using set angles and lighting that is flattering on the body. I’m guilty on all of these counts. Additionally, each and every like becomes a signal of approval, and for some, Instagram becomes an avenue to temporarily boost feelings of negative body image. In presenting ourselves as objects, virtual feedback provides validation and a fragile sense of worth.
“I’m aware Instagram can be damaging, so I’m careful with who I follow. Even though I’ve never searched for fitness or health, the discover section is ridiculous, it’s just filled with women with perfect bodies. I wasn’t even choosing to look for it, but it appeared and made me feel crap.” — F
Fitspiration is a trend often falling into this category. Its aim is to provide motivation for exercise and encourage a healthy lifestyle, but most posts emphasise aesthetics over health. Studies show browsing #fitspo posts on Instagram, for as little as 30 minutes, increases self-objectification. Further, another study discovered women who shared their own “Fitspo” photographs scored higher in charts monitoring a drive for thinness and compulsive exercise. Eighteen percent of the same group were at risk of developing an eating disorder.
Comparison And Negative Body Image
Body image issues rise in the space between how our bodies really are, and the projection of what our bodies should be. On top of mainstream media, social media — in particular Instagram — leads to information overload and incessant streams of people with seemingly perfect bodies. It creates a vicious cycle of comparison and negative self-perception.
“People not only compare their own bodies, but attribute perceived social value with the likes and followers that come with having a ‘sick’ body. The inverse of that is, someone who thinks they don’t have a ‘sick’ body then thinks they aren’t as valuable as a person. This obviously isn’t true, but we’re all susceptible to feeling shit about ourselves because of it.” — M
It’s possible to change our bodies through diet and exercise, to try and reach levels of perfection. But such is the nature of comparison, no physical change will ever bring lasting contentment. Losing weight or gaining muscle becomes an “I’ll be happy when.” The body is always changing, from the moment we’re born, to the moment we die. We are flesh and bone, a constant flux of regenerating cells. We get pimples, shadows under our eyes, hair in random places. Beauty standards defy human nature because they are designed to be unattainable.
Has Instagram influenced your body image? Let me know your experience in the comments section below.
- Improving Body Image: How Perception Of The Body Is A Reflection Of The Mind
- Buddhism And Body Image — Applying The Middle Way Philosophy.