Unrealistic and Unrepresentative Ideals: Social Media and Body Image

Written by Melissa Chen, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Information Science Major

Body Image and Social Media

Have you ever seen a post of someone on social media and suddenly thought of your own body or appearance? You’re not alone. 87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to those they find on social media, and of those percentages, 50% of women and 37% of men are dissatisfied with their own bodies. Body image is “a person’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about their body”. Body dissatisfaction occurs “when views of the body are negative and involves a perceived discrepancy between a person’s assessment of their actual and ideal body”. The Western beauty standard is often associated with a thin, young body for women and a muscular, low-fat body for men. These standards set in the media have detrimental effects on social media users, especially in young women and adolescents, and have put “a strong emphasis on self-presentation”.

Appearance Comparison

Many users compare themselves to popular accounts that promote the ideal and attractive standard, which often leads to body dissatisfaction when they don’t meet this “standard”. Appearance comparison and internalization are processes that contribute to body dissatisfaction. Appearance comparison “stems from social comparison theory, positing that individuals likely evaluate their social position and attitudes toward a given issue by comparing those aspects with others”. At the same time, users are accepting the unrealistic standards presented on social media and “internalize [the] socially constructed appearance ideals”. Mechanisms on social media platforms make it easier for users to compare themselves with images they see on social media.

Likes and Comments

Users can quantify their attractiveness through likes and comments found on many platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok. The more people are focused on monitoring responses leads to more body dissatisfaction, and the need to digitally manipulate images, or choose specific images to create the perfect post. Many accounts today have also become specifically appearance-focused. There is actually terminology for some of the trends with accounts promoting fitness and thinness.

Fitspiration and Thinspiration

You might have noticed on social media that there has been a rise in fitness accounts and healthy eating accounts. Some of these accounts promote unrealistic body standards and can be categorized into the hashtags “#fitspiration” and “#thinspiration”. Fitspiration includes accounts that focus on athleticism and fitness, showcasing lean and muscular men and women. Thinspiration includes images that focus on thinness which emphasize thin, underweight women and bony features. “Fitspiration” fosters behaviors that lead to muscle gain and compulsive exercise, whereas “thinspiration” fosters fat-reducing and disordered eating behaviors. However, both trends emphasize dieting behaviors, body surveillance, weight-loss, and guilt, and lead to increased body dissatisfaction. A study on fitspiration posts on Pinterest found that the pins promoted attractiveness rather than health as motivation to reach not only a fit, but also thin ideal. In fact, Instagram banned the hashtag “thinspiration” and other hashtags that promote eating disorders because of the effects of these hashtags on its users. While some platforms are taking action, educating social media users is still fundamental to mitigate the negative effects of social media and optimize the benefits that these platforms can provide.

Social Media Literacy

Social media literacy can be defined as “the degree to which individuals actively respond to images using critical examination and analysis rather than passive viewing.” Social media literacy can change how users view and analyze images on social media and can lessen appearance comparison and internalization. For example, a study performed in 2021 analyzed the effect of identifying edited and unedited images on female body dissatisfaction. In the study, labels either told whether the image was edited or unedited, and unlabelled images had no indication of whether they were edited or not. The study observed the effects of showing labelled edited and unedited images to the subjects versus seeing unlabelled edited or unedited images. The results showed how the group with labelled unedited images had higher appearance satisfaction, compared to the edited images group because they knew the images were unedited. Many other studies attempt different ways to test social media literacy as a prevention technique against the unrealistic ideals posed in social media. In fact, social media literacy can prepare adolescents to understand the unrealistic ideals pervading the media and find ways to support each other toward a healthier social media community.

Find Your Positivity

Social media can provide support for those with already existing body image issues by connecting them with supportive communities. The body positivity trend has taken root and has proven to improve body image and mood with content such as realistic body features like body rolls and real vs. edited images. This movement encourages an inclusive environment for all body types and appearances under the hashtag “#bodypositivity”. Social media can be a great way to connect with others, but it is important to recognize when it is negatively impacting your body image or mental health. Some ways to keep a positive body image are disconnecting when you’re feeling down, unfollowing accounts that promote the unrealistic standard, and also following the accounts with a positive and encouraging attitude. Groups like Eating Disorder Hope and Body Positive Cornell can be great resources to support a more “body diverse” social media!

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