Is Social Media promoting or demoting body positivity?

People have complex relationships with their bodies and social media plays a huge role in how that spells out for different folks. While most people tend to believe that using social media affects self-esteem and body image negatively, what really is the answer to this discourse? (Sub-heading)

Social media might be a virtual space, with no actual dimensions, but it’s a space nonetheless where real people exist, communicate, form connections and relations, and spend time together fawning over pictures of grouchy cats and adorable dogs. To say that life on such virtual platforms is not real would be somewhat of a fallacy. In the world of today, social media intersects with every part of the lives we live and experience. So it’s no surprise that it factors in to not only our perception of others but of our own selves as well.

With traditional media like the television and print media, we often consume content which only features bodies of models and celebrities, whereas on social media we interact with pictures and videos of our friends, families, acquaintances along with the models and celebrities. These media have all have different use and consumption patterns and they have different effects on our self-esteem and body image as well. It’s a known practice that almost everyone on social media puts the best version of themselves on display, be it in their carefully curated political opinions or ‘perfected to an art’ selfies. Conscious of the beauty standards and how their own bodies compare to the standards, people online spend significant amounts of time editing their pictures. The general consensus among masses is that more use of social media negatively impacts their body image. Let’s explore some nuances regarding the same issue.

1). Different genders vs body image issues –
Body image is heavily connected to one’s mental wellbeing during their adolescence. It is the time where boys and girls are going through hormonal and physical changes in their bodies. Studies find that a lot of teens go through the same issues during puberty – most girls seek thinness as an ideal feature and boys desire more muscular and bigger bodies. It’s observed that a significantly higher number of girls experience body-dissatisfaction compared to boys with 80.8 % girls wanting to alter their bodies in some way as opposed to 54.8 % of boys. (1)
Social media has a direct correlation with body image issues and lots of teen girls feel discomfort with their bodies when they spend huge amounts of time on social platforms. It also houses a lot of influencers and trainers whose target demographics are young men and women and they essentially teach them how to gain the ideal body types. This content can often further their hatred of their bodies. It leads to them practicing harmful dieting plans and gaining eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia.

2). Body positive content –
While it’s true that general social media usage leads to a negative body image, there is a lot of content on Instagram and Facebook that promotes body positivity. Past few years have seen a spike in the creation and consumption of such content. Accounts like @bodyposipanda – a page that caters to fat, hairy, disabled bodies and bodies with acne, stretch marks and cellulite and teaches them to embrace and love their imperfect bodies, and @iweigh – a page that asks for its followers to not worry about their body weight and instead count ‘how much they weigh?’ in their achievements and personal successes thus building one’s self-esteem not on how they look but instead their personality, interpersonal skills and their internal strengths, both have gained large followings and their followers report having a better body image and mental health than before. Studies show that even reading simple affirmations on social media like ‘You are perfect just the way you are’ makes users feel better about their bodies.
We can safely conclude that following the right sort of accounts and taking a break from social media every so often can help people gain better body image. One downside of the body-positive movement on social media, however, is that – since women report more body dissatisfaction than men, a lot of the content is primarily focused and directed at women, so men can often feel alienated in such spaces. But that’s not to worry, slowly but definitely, numerous social media pages that cater to the mental health and wellbeing of men are emerging as well.

3). Fitspiration content –
Fitspiration or ‘Fitspo’ is a moniker for social media content which features people with ‘ideal’ bodies doing, or at least pretending to do, exercises and yoga. It is meant for the followers to gain inspiration to do heavyweight exercises and attain their dream bodies. Surveys and studies show that after watching Fitspiration content on social media, users felt way worse about their bodies than before. It goes without saying that such content can be toxic and harmful for the users since it promotes a culture of shaming people for not working out enough and can lead to people gaining eating disorders and poor eating and training habits.

4). The platforms on body positivity –
The matter of the fact is that a huge chunk of the market depends upon people’s insecurities about their bodies to sell its products to them. Take, for example, hair removal products, skin lightening creams and tonics, cosmetic products and surgeries. Capitalism and Consumerism maintain that people be dissatisfied with their bodies and companies can profit off of it. Since social media and its algorithms follow the same capitalistic systems, it does not come as a surprise that there’s a direct correlation between social media usage and negative body image. Social media algorithms often push body-negative content at people and once the users get familiar with such content, it plies the more susceptible users with targeted advertisements that sell those products. Social media platforms have perfected the craft of ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ and they use it relentlessly to earn profits. Facebook and Instagram have even introduced their own shops where you can directly purchase such products. It is also important to mention that social media often tag nude/semi-nude pictures of ‘imperfect bodies’ as inappropriate and take them down while the same does not happen to nude bodies that are thinner, whiter, muscular and without scars. This gives us a fair idea of where social media companies stand when it comes to the body-positivity movement.

5). Diverse effects of social media –
When it comes to observing the role of social media in affecting body image in people, neither the people nor the platforms can be taken as monoliths. Various social media platforms have varying effects on people and all people have different reactions to a similar kind of content. For more clarity into the situation, let’s consider Instagram vs Twitter. Since Instagram is an image-centric website while Twitter is a word centric website, it is noticed that spending time on Instagram makes people more self-conscious of their bodies than spending time on Twitter. It is observed that platforms like Facebook and Instagram are more severe in their body negative effects on people than platforms like Twitter, Discord, Whatsapp and Telegram.
It’s also imperative to understand that not all people are affected the same. Some people have high self-comparison tendencies than others and thus they are more likely to compare their bodies to those of their peers and celebrities. To remove any chances of harmful behaviours manifesting, it’s important that everyone learns about where the ideal body beauty standards come from, how damaging they can be and how random and temporary they actually are.

6). The future of social media and body positivity –
One has to keep in mind that the phenomenon of social media is relatively quiet recent and the body positivity movement even more so. Even then, the movement has grown and changed a lot since its inception. New ideas like Body Neutrality are taking the stage. Body positivity champion Jameela Jamil recently got Instagram to restrict weight loss and cosmetic surgery content such that it won’t be shown in the feeds of minors (under-18 users). Popstar Rihanna’s fashion product line Fenty recently had a fashion runway which was inclusive of all types of bodies, which is really a sight to see considering how fatphobic and body negative the fashion industry is. And that’s just the beginning of it, there’s still a lot of potential for the movement to grow further and bigger and I believe it will.

Conclusion –
Social media is a really complicated space. Like anything else, indiscriminate and unwise use of social media can have dangerous consequences. These platforms are run for profit and they profit from people going through body dissatisfaction, therefore if one is not careful, spending time on social media can make them feel inadequate. However to counter that there are small, but growing, patches of space on social media that actually promote body positivity and can be really beneficial. These spaces foster a sense of community and belonging in users and teach them about the history as well as the psychology of body-negative behaviour in a very lucid, easy to understand way. Users also learn how to manage the expectations for ideal bodies and how to appreciate their own bodies for everything they do. Social media is a dynamic, ever-changing beast and people can absolutely conquer it if they’re given the right tools and information.