But don’t worry: I’m not going to tell you to swear off Instagram, quit your selfie habit, or delete your Facebook account. But if you suspect your social media use may be putting a damper on your body image, it pays to take a closer look at exactly what you’re doing online, and how it affects you, both as a consumer and as a producer of social media content. And then feel free to cherry-pick!
Social media no doubt influences our lives in many positive ways: it brings us together, gives everyone a voice, and allows us to find people who think and feel like us. From a body-image perspective, though, social media is kind of a mixed bag. Yes, it has been a huge driver of the movement toward female empowerment and more diversity in the media. At the same time, studies show that many aspects of social media can also be pretty bad news for body image.
The real reason your feeds put you in a funk
Let’s talk about media literacy. Most people are media literate when it comes to movies, ad campaigns, and magazines: they know that those images don’t represent reality and that plenty of behind-the-scenes tricks and Photoshop were involved to create them.
Studies have shown that this media literacy is one of the most powerful antidotes to low body confidence, because if you know that something isn’t real, you’re not going to compare yourself to it. The problem is that even though media literacy for movies and magazines is at an all-time high, women are still much less likely to view pics they see on Instagram, Facebook, and other social sites with the same critical eye, for one reason: social media images give off the illusion of being unedited, candid shots of real life.
That faux candidness is what makes social media – more than any other type of media – such a minefield for our self-esteem. We have always admired movie stars and models for the way they looked. But thanks to social media, there is no longer a clear line between “normal” and “paid-to-look-this-good-with-a-glam-squad-on-the-payroll.” When you see a red carpet, magazine cover, or movie screen, it’s easy to imagine how much work must have gone into creating that image. Now we see those same celebrities on their days off and without makeup, looking every bit as gorgeous. We also see a whole bunch of other people – influencers – who may earn a living by looking the way they do, but who are supposed to be regular folks just like us, giving us a candid glimpse into their everyday life.
The trouble is, of course, that much – no, scratch that – the majority of what you see on social media is anything but candid and everyday. There are filters, lighting tricks, and Photoshop. We’ve all heard stories of the burned-out social media starlet who confessed to regularly taking more than a hundred photos for a single Instagram post, always on an empty stomach and as dehydrated as possible, to bring out her abs.
If someone’s social media account is (part of) their business, you can be damn sure that they are approaching it like one: they plan, they test, they optimize – just like any other business would. And that’s their prerogative. As long as you, on the receiving end, are aware that this influencer’s selfie and that brand’s Insta story are not simple snapshots of reality but staged images with a clear (and often commercial) purpose, it’s all good. Because then you also know that it makes zero sense to compare yourself to them.
The problem with social media is not that it’s full of gorgeous, successful, stylish people. It’s that it’s full of gorgeous, successful, stylish people who are supposed to be just like us. We are mistaking center stage during show time for off-season behind the scenes. Social media is a stage – one that anyone can hop on and do their bit – but a stage nonetheless.
Reprinted with permission from Beyond Beautiful, by Anuschka Rees, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Marina Esmereldo.