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Our feelings toward body image are more complicated than ever before. 

It’s the time of year when diets are popping up everywhere and it’s hard to escape the New Year, New You mentality. Getting healthy is one thing, but the pressure to look good is another. Where it used to be film stars and fashion magazines that challenged our body image, now it’s Instagram. Newsfeeds are packed with perfect faces and figures, racking up the likes and setting the bar higher and higher.  

The research shows that just about all of us are unhappy with how we look in one way or another. Having some hang ups about your appearance isn’t new, but the way we’re all obsessing over them is growing cause for concern. Editing apps are readily available for anyone with a phone; filters are slimming and plumping users automatically; and cosmetic surgery trends are thriving.  

With 24/7 access to the beautiful people online, there come ever more chances to feel unsatisfied. Daily knocks to self-esteem can bring it crumbling down and serious mental health issues can follow, ranging from depression to eating disorders. But where has this sharp rise in insecurities come from? 

phone with social media notification bubbles
Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels

Social Media vs Body Image

While some people are able to tune them out, for others the nagging doubts about their appearance are impossible to ignore. Mental health and self-esteem can both suffer when unrealistic beauty standards are continually reinforced.  And nowhere does that quite as well as the image saturated world of social media.

The nature of sites like Instagram doesn’t just bring unlimited access, it breeds an air of competition. As more ‘perfect’ content is rewarded with more likes and shares, it creates a benchmark for what’s expected. A reward cycle begins to form and the pressure to match up or risk being left behind can be overwhelming. Comparison culture easily sucks the joy out of what should be a fun and personal outlet. 

It’s become such a normal part of life on apps, that many users are open to joking about it. Captions about being unsure whether or not to post a selfie are frequent; countless memes exist about seeing a celebrity’s content and then hating your own. While the humour can be a healthy way to manage twinges of insecurity, it’s a drop in the ocean of a much larger issue. 

The culture of perfection

Enter: Influencers. They’re not entirely to blame, but it’s impossible to ignore the correlation between the meteoric rise of Influencer Culture and the effects it’s had on self esteem for the rest of us. Individuals who are paid to promote products and cultivate their own lifestyle as a brand are everywhere; whether you actively follow them or not. Often it’s delivered as being authentic content and made to seem candid. But the lifestyles and appearances are professionally curated and can set a dangerously unrealistic target for their followers.  

With young, often impressionable audiences keeping up with their every post, it’s not hard to see where the problems begin. It’s well known that social media brings about feelings of inadequacy. But it goes beyond FOMO. Trends form when surgical and digital enhancements are viewed by millions. Striving to attain a certain look has never been so accessible, or hard to escape. 

It can be uncomfortable to think that someone’s relatable post about being at home, relaxing in their pyjamas with #NoMakeup isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While many people are adopting a more relatable approach to influencing, that doesn’t guarantee it’s all 100% unedited content. Individuals who do ditch the filters and superficial gimmicks are in such a minority that they’re often celebrated for taking a stand; if this kind of natural posting was the norm, would that need to happen? 

3 people sitting together
Photo by Armin Rimoldi on Pexels

Chopping and changing

Editing isn’t exclusive to Photoshop anymore. Apps like FaceTune make it possible for anyone to nip and tuck their photos, often for free. While most of us have played around with whitening teeth and blurring out backgrounds before, the possibilities are more or less endless. From changing eye colours to strategically cutting inches off waists; the results are difficult to spot when it’s done well. And that no longer requires hiring a professional. A selfie can be completely transformed from the comfort of the sofa in a couple of minutes. And there’s no requirement to acknowledge the changes when posting it.  

Pre-set filters that soften features and enhance makeup aren’t a secret; in fact they’re so common people are going to great lengths to live up to them. Instagram went as far as banning ‘plastic surgery’ filters, but they’re still around in new forms. People are increasingly seeking procedures to plump lips and contour cheekbones, keen to emulate what’s being shown off online. Where it used to be seen as drastic to get work done, the rise of quick and easy ‘tweakments’ are making it more obtainable than ever before. In the bid to look good, safety often falls by the wayside; horror stories about botched injections are all too common when people cut corners.

But it’s not all about the face. Even full body filters are available, and they’re setting a dangerous precedent. Software exists to alter body shape in videos so subtly that they’re easy to pass off as being the real deal; even when shooting live. Unrealistic figures then spread across platforms like TikTok and without disclaimers, they can be misleading and deeply harmful. In a few instances, they’ve been used to ‘prove’ that the edited photos of social media stars are ‘real’ when they’ve been called into question. The gap between reality and what we see is stretching ever wider, and growing more and more convincing as technology improves. 

Body image figures

Eating disorders affect between 1 and 3 million people in the UK, according to Priory Group mental healthcare. The average age that these disorders begin is 16-19; a demographic that spends more time on social media than any other. The Mental Health Foundation reported in 2019 that over 1/3 of UK adults felt anxious or depressed about their body image; 1 in 5 felt that social media had made them worry about their body image. 

Issues with self confidence are often seen as being primarily a ‘women’s problem’, but they’re not confined to any gender. While women do remain the largest demographic targeted by the media when it comes to appearance, men are increasingly feeling the pressure. A study of 1000 men, performed by the Florida House Experience, found that 65% compared their bodies to those they saw on social media. 37% were unhappy with themselves having done so.  

And it’s younger people who are most at risk from the dark side of social media. The Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram was the most harmful platform for self-esteem in those aged 16-24. 2/3 of those who responded to the survey wanted posts to come with warnings if they’d been digitally manipulated.

As we all spend more time on our phones, it’s worth reminding ourselves that social media is supposed to be fun. Re-evaluating who and what you follow is a great start. Seeking out body positive accounts can bring a diverse range of content to your feed, celebrating all kinds of beauty. But it’s also good to remember the following:

3 diverse women sitting together
Photo by Roberto Hund on Pexels

Taking a step back is important

It’s all too easy to become engrossed in the pocket-sized world we see on our phones. Regular reminders to yourself that Instagram isn’t a substitute for Real Life are essential. What’s shown on a 3×3 grid of photos isn’t the whole story, no matter how perfect someone else might seem.

Forget face value 

In the age of fake news, it’s good to exercise caution when believing anything seen online these days. The same goes for social media. If something – or someone – looks a little too good to be true? Chances are there’s been a bit of extra work put in to making it seem that way. Edited content may not come with disclaimers [yet] but questioning what you see can be just as good. Take flawless faces and Olympian abs with a pinch of salt. 

Remember the team…

…of people who probably worked on that photo you just Liked. There’s not much point beating yourself up for not looking like someone who’s worked with a hair stylist, makeup artist, photographer and retoucher to get the perfect shot. Influencers have a job and that job is creating immaculate content; a lot goes into making these posts, don’t hold yourself to the same professional standards. 

You do You

Foxy eye-lifts and hourglass curves will come and go. ‘The ideal weight’ will change every few months. What’s on trend one year may be forgotten the next. It can be tricky not to get pulled in by looks that everyone is striving for. But it’s worth remembering that there’s no need to conform to something you don’t want to. And most importantly: You don’t need to look like anyone else, you’re doing an incredible job of looking like you! Making changes to your appearance should only be done for the benefit of your own health and happiness. 

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