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The Influence of Social Media on Body Image


How can social media influence how people view their body?

Historical Background

Concern over body image is deeply rooted in our society and has been since humans have existed. The concept of beauty is defined by the terms of our society’s heteronormative narrative of what beauty is. This aligns closely with patriarchal values that define gender expectations and the worth of women, which results in the objectification and sexualization of women in the media. In terms of evolutionary biology, humans have been wired to look for mates that will be beneficial for creating a new generation, where health was prioritized. A science writer, Matt Ridley, explains in his book, The Red Queen, “Prettiness is an indication of youth and health, which are indications of fertility.” Throughout different points in history, women have favored different ideal body shapes. In Ancient Greece around the 7th century, the ideal body type was to be curvy and heavyset, with large breasts and large hips. Having a larger body showed wealth, indicating people had more money for food. In the Renaissance era, women were commonly curvy, pale but with slightly flushed cheeks, and soft, round faces. In 16th century France, corsets were a big fashion style. Corsets were used to shape women’s’ body into an hourglass shape by raising the bosom, thinning the waist, and making the hips bigger. In the 1920’s, around World War I, women were taking part in the workforce. This brought power and independence, which showed through women’s fashion and body preferences. Women didn’t want to show their curves and they would cut their hair, which went against many of the common body preferences. Curves were very desired for a lot of history and there were even ads in the 1940’s for how to gain curves and success stories about gaining weight. In the 1950’s women like Marilyn Monroe were huge icons for body standards, but for most of her life in our current-day terms, she would have been considered plus size. The ideal body image was very pale throughout most of history because it indicated having enough money to stay inside versus having to work outside on farms, which would make your skin darker. In more recent generations, skinniness has been valued very strongly and has been highlighted in the media. Women’s body image is a big part of their identity because women are taught to strive for the perfect body in order to be a true woman.

Today in our society, body image is stressed a lot from childhood to adulthood. This causes many problems for women emotionally and physically. The average woman is 5’4 and weighs 140-150 lbs, versus models who are 5’11 and 120 lbs. Using models who represent unhealthy or unrealistic body types influences people’s ideas of how they should look. Instead of putting pictures of real women on social media, magazines, and entertainment, Publishers use unrealistic images, affecting people’s expectations of themselves and others. On top of that, editors are photoshopping pictures of the models to be even more unrealistic so they are more “perfect.” Social media has created phrases like “body goals,” “thinspo,” and “beachbody” which has been influencing peoples idea of what their body should look like even if that is an unobtainable goal physically. Toys are even influencing children to believe they should have a certain body type. The Barbie doll is a very popular toy but displays an unhealthy body image role model for girls. Along with toys, movies for children like the Disney Princess movies show very unrealistic body types. Most princess movies show women as having tiny waists, big breasts, big hips, and tiny arms. Research from Common Sense Media states that “one in four children have tried some kind of diet by the age of seven and 89 percent of 10 year-olds are afraid of becoming overweight.” With all the pressure to maintain the perfect body, some people develop eating disorders. Statistics say that at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. Though not all of these cases are driven by unrealistic portrayals of body image, it has an impact on the rise eating disorders.

Dailymail.com, Carly Stern For. “Half of Women Take 6 Selfies or More to Find Right One.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 9 Jan. 2018, www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5248413/Half-women-6-SELFIES- right-one.html.

Scientific Research

As social media becomes more prevalent in our society we can see the direct effect it has on our population. The social pressure to conform to body standards can be shown in the data as 0.9% of American women suffer from anorexia in their lifetime. Though it is inconclusive if media directly affects each of the 0.9%, media carries out the message of who is more valuable and desirable in society. Anorexia is also not only caused by societal factors but also people can have an increased risk of having anorexia biologically. Recent research suggests that inherited biological and genetic factors contribute approximately 56% of the risk for developing an eating disorder. Individuals mental health can also affect the possible risk for an eating disorder. In the book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters he compares Western interpretations of anorexia to experiences in China. He discovered that most people who have anorexia nervosa are motivated to starve themselves in search of attention. This theory was applied to China’s population and he found that people who matched the illness physically, didn’t match the western understanding of the mental burdens. Most people in China reported that their stomach hurt or they had trouble swallowing whereas in western understanding says that people starve themselves because they are afraid of being fat or some similar ideology. Ethan Watters concluded that in China, culturally it wouldn’t make sense to claim they were afraid of being fat because in China being fat wasn’t considered to be as negative as in the Western world. As China started to adopt more western culture cases of anorexia looked similar to that of the western world. Social media adopted being skinny as the body standard which changed the people’s motivations to starve themselves. Cases of anorexia nervosa in China now match those of the western world. People with these cases usually have the mindset where they are afraid of being fat, want to have the ideal body type, and are looking for attention. Social media has a large impact on society and the more often media shows preference in physical appearance the more motivated people become to match it.

Hopefulandinspired. “NEDA Diagram.” Life in Balance, 10 Dec. 2012, hopefulandinspired.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/statistically-speaking/neda-diagram/.

Media Movements

Recently, there has been a movement called the Body Positivity Movement. It is a movement “that encourages people to adopt more forgiving and affirming attitudes towards their bodies, with the goal of improving overall health and well-being.” Many people use social media as a platform to spread body positivity. For example, there is a girl named Essena O’Neill who is a model and has a big Instagram and Youtube following. She posted many pictures of herself, but in order to expose the unrealistic body expectations in the media, she recaptioned all her photos. In one photo she originally said “love this skirt, best day ever,” and the updated caption says “I starved myself for four days to take this photo, cried when I thought I looked fat.” She started a movement called “let’s be game changers” where she asked people to delete their social media to put more emphasis on mental health.

Cuccinello, Hayley C. “Instagram Star Essena O’Neill Quits Social Media, Exposes The Business Behind Her Pics.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 Feb. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/hayleycuccinello/2015/11/03/instagram-star-essena-oneill-quits-social-media-exposes-the-business-behind-her-pics/#ff4edeb2ad58

Another woman who started a body positivity movement was Taryn Brumfitt, a stay at home mom, writer and speaker. Her movement is to “harness and facilitate positive body image activism by teaching women the value and power of loving their bodies.” After having three kids, Taryn was always unhappy about the way her body looked. This motivated her to train and work really hard to get fit. But when she achieved that “perfect body” she still wasn’t happy. Later, when almost completing a body improvement surgery, she had an epiphany related to her daughter and how these surgeries would impact her daughter’s idea of her own body. She then began her journey developing the body positivity movement and in the process created a documentary sharing her and other stories, giving hope and inspiration to her audience, teaching people to embrace their bodies. And in another example, people used social media to expose Barbie and Disney princesses for causing unrealistic body expectations. They managed to convince Barbie to make a set of dolls with normal proportions, which was a big win for the movement. A common theme among most of these movements is to destroy the stigma around what beauty means and redefine that in a positive and healthy way. This helps people understand the negative effects of body image and to see where to go in the future.

Network, The Lifestyle. “‎Embrace with Taryn Brumfitt Podcast on Apple Podcasts.” Apple Podcasts, 2 May 2017, podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/embrace-with-taryn-brumfitt-podcast/id1232482994?mt=2.

Video

I created this video about body image by interviewing students at my high school. I go to the Nueva high school in San Mateo, California. Each of the students I interviewed use social media. I chose to interview people who identify as female because women are statistically more likely to have eating disorders. Female teens also face a lot of pressure and insecurities especially because their bodies are still going through changes. I also wanted to hear the voices in my community of people who are a similar age as me to understand their stories and perspectives.

Before watching the video take a few minutes to reflect on these question. (Click the link below to watch the video)

  • What does beauty mean to you?
  • Do you like your body?
  • What makes you not feel got about your body?
  • When do you feel most beautiful?
  • What is one thing you like about your body?

Goals for the future

In my opinion, the next steps for the future should work towards redefining peoples physical expectations; however, this is a difficult goal so I suggest starting by bringing body positivity into schools and the media. The media present the idea that it is necessary to have a certain body time to be valued, I think we need to work towards valuing a healthy body, not a perfect body. This task is also quite large but movements like Taryn Brumfitts or Essena O’Neill’s can help change the message in the media. Also, I often hear phrases like “I want to have your …,” “Body goals,” and “You shouldn’t wear that with your body type.” These negative phrases can really affect how someone sees their body so I suggest having a different response for example if someone showed you a picture and said: “body goals, I wish I could be that thin.” Try responding with “She is really beautiful and so are you.” This response generates a positive message around body image rather than tearing other people down. In schools, there isn’t much discussion around body image and its effect on mental and physical health. I think that we should start seminars at schools to discuss and spread body positivity, inviting people who have learned to love their own bodies to speak and share their stories.

What can you do?

There are many things you can do to help this cause. One thing that you can do is support others in changing aspects of our society or make a change yourself by using a website like change.org. One cause that is very important is changing how models are presented. Many industries use models who embody perfection which creates a standard for society; however, many people do not look like the models and it creates body image issues. Many industries force models to starve and maintain a health regimen to ensure that they look as close to perfect as possible, and on top of that many companies use photoshop, which creates even more unhealthy body standard. In the petition linked below, you can help create a law to ensure the health of models in the future. This would allow models to be healthier and also present a real body. Another thing that you can do is promote body positivity on social media. You can do this by paying attention to images, slogans, or attitudes that make you feel bad about yourself or your body and protest these messages. You can also post pictures or support pictures that show an “imperfect” body to show that every body is a perfect body.

How to help someone with a eating disorder

First, it is important to identify that someone has an eating disorder. Eating disorders are serious so speak up as soon as possible. Talk with the person about their experience and make a plan for the future. Be prepared to offer support and be patient. Of course, everyone’s experience is different so depending so it depends what kind of medial attention is needed. Going to a doctor is a good first step to navigate where to go next. Some patients eating disorders can be connected to other illnesses so each experience can be unique. Eating disorders are commonly treated through medical treatment, therapy, or nutritional counseling. Go to a doctor to see which one is right for you. If you are a family member or a friend of the person it is important to learn about their condition and to set a good example. Sometimes if families and friends act abnormally towards the person dealing with the disorder in can worsen their experience and their illness. If this is a concern family therapy, group therapy, and individual therapy are offered. It is important to not be judgemental and to be empathetic during this process.

Why I believe this topic is important

I think that the use of social media becomes more dominant every day and many people struggle with being insecure about their bodies. I struggle and I see people that I love struggle with how they view their bodies. I know many people that think about their appearance so often that it almost prevents them from doing everyday tasks. I also hear so much negativity coming from people about how much they dislike themselves. I want to help others feel more confident and comfortable as who they are and I think that helps people live a more happy and healthy life. My audience is mainly teenage girls because they are most affected by social media. Teenage girls face a lot of pressure to look a certain way and it is very obvious on social media. I think that social media is exaggerating this idea of perfection and teenager girls are experiencing the negative effects of that by feeling the need to match those standards. Body image matters a lot because how people feel about their bodies can change how they go about life. If people feel negative about their body, it might affect how they act and how they present themselves. If it becomes very negative, then the pressure to look a certain way might even influence the person into developing an eating disorder. Everyone faces these insecurities so most people understand the difficulties of beauty standards and how it affects one’s life.

My story

My name is Rachel Dulski and I am a Junior at the Nueva School. I use social media fairly often. For me personally, my use of social media does affect how I see my body. I have learned to appreciate my body though I sometimes struggle not to compare myself to others. I believe that there is beauty in everyone a person’s body doesn’t determine their self-worth. I realize that the media portrays a strong message of what beauty is and what it should be and I want to challenge that view to be more open-minded. The process of changing how beauty is represented in the media is complex but one worth taking, for the benefit of self-love and health is much more important.

What are your thoughts?

Made with Padlet

Works Cited

About Taryn Brumfitt.” Body Image Movement, bodyimagemovement.com/about-taryn-brumfitt/.

Standard-Examiner. “False advertising, photoshopping mars our body image.” Standard-Examiner, 22 July 2015, www.standard.net/Hers/2015/08/12/Body-Image.

Cunningham, Erin. “Our Photoshopping Disorder: The Truth in Advertising Bill Asks Congress to Regulate Deceptive Images.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 22 Apr. 2014, www.thedailybeast.com/our-photoshopping-disorder-the-truth-in-advertising-bill-asks-congress-to-regulate-deceptive-images.

Thompson, J. Kevin, and Leslie J. Heinberg. “The Media’s Influence on Body Image Disturbance and Eating Disorders: We’ve Reviled Them, Now Can We Rehabilitate Them?” Journal of Social Issues, Blackwell Publishers Inc., 17 Dec. 2002, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0022-4537.00119/full

Zunter, Michelle. “Did Body Shaming Barbie Make Us All Feel Better?” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 Feb. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-boklage/did-body-shaming-barbie-make-us-all-feel-better_b_9298328.html.

Petty, Amber. “How women’s ‘perfect’ body types changed throughout history.” TheList.com, The List, 27 Mar. 2017, www.thelist.com/44261/womens-perfect-body-types-changed-throughout-history/.

“Anorexia Nervosa.” National Eating Disorders Association, 28 Feb. 2018, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/anorexia.
“GoodTherapy.org.” GoodTherapy, www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/body-image.


“Body Image, Self-Esteem, and Mental Health.” Body Image, Self-Esteem and Mental Health, www.heretohelp.bc.ca/factsheet/body-image-self-esteem-and-mental-health.


“Social Media and Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Mental Health.” National Center for Health Research, 17 Oct. 2018, www.center4research.org/social-media-affects-mental-health/.


“How Is Body Image Affected by Social Media and Going Online?” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, www.commonsensemedia.org/media-and-body-image/how-is-body-image-affected-by-social-media-and-going-online.

“Eating Disorder Statistics • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/.

Jemmaok. “Body Image and Intersectionality.” Putney Mediates the Media, 21 Nov. 2015, putneymediatingthemedia.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/body-image-and-intersectionality/.

“Body Positive Movement.” Wikiwand, www.wikiwand.com/en/Body_Positive_Movement.

Meghan. “#Bodypositive: A Look at Body Image & Social Media.” FHE Health – Addiction & Mental Health Care, Florida House Experience, 14 Feb. 2019, fherehab.com/news/bodypositive/.

Share this project
COMMENTS: 23
  1. April 25, 2019 by Heather .Hersey

    Hi Rachel, thank you for sharing your story and the thoughts of your friends! Where do you think these ideas can be included in the curriculum? Obviously, it needs to be more than just an assembly.

    • April 27, 2019 by Rachel.Dulski

      Thank you! I think that this topic of conversation should be included in a health class in high schools similar to sex education. It is an important topic to learn about and is crucial for mental and physical health especially for developing teenagers.

  2. April 25, 2019 by Manasi Garg

    Hi Rachel,
    I absolutely loved your presentation and I think you presented the information very well. I can see the amount of effort you put into it and everything is well researched. Are the statistics you included information you found online or was it done through a survey? I love how you also included how body image affects men 🙂

    • April 27, 2019 by Rachel.Dulski

      Thank you! The information I use I found online.

  3. April 25, 2019 by Vivian.Fong

    Hi Rachel, amazing project! I love how relevant this topic is in today’s society, especially since the use of social media has been escalating over the years. If eating disorders are already so prevalent in young girls (age 10 and below), what are some ways we can spread awareness to that age group? Should movies such as Disney or toy companies (such as the ones that make Barbie dolls) consider remaking their characters?

    • April 27, 2019 by Rachel.Dulski

      Thanks! Answering both of your questions, I think to target girls below 10 we should try to promote body positivity with toys and movies. These forms of entertainment are very popular and are commonly used. I don’t think that companies should put effort into remaking their characters; however, I do think that Disney should try to change how they animate characters in the future. For example, I am very happy with how Disney animated Moana as she portrays a more realistic body type and I hope they continue to promote that positivity in the future.

  4. April 25, 2019 by Eliana Jenkins

    Wow! I really loved how you put your presentation together. Your topic is so relevant to modern day girls/guys and is super applicable. I think my favorite incorporation of yours is the video of your friends. It gives your campaign a more real feel which is a very effective advocacy tool.

  5. April 26, 2019 by Olivia.Reichl

    Rachel, thank you so much for sharing a project that is so important in today’s society, and thank you for sharing your own story. You did an amazing job with your presentation and I learned a lot more about how to embrace myself and my body for what it is. I never really realized how many people actually struggled with comparing themselves to those on social media, so thank you for creating an inspiring and interesting presentation.

    -Olivia

  6. April 26, 2019 by Kenna Luebbers

    Hi Rachel! I really love this project and think it is important to talk about issues relating to body image given the pressures that exist within today’s society. It was really interesting how you included a video interview with students from your high school as well. I think your idea of having seminars in schools is a really good one and something that could spark conversation.

  7. April 26, 2019 by Addie Anderson

    I actually remember following Essena and the whole thing where she just disappeared from the internet. I definitely think you are right that social media makes it so everyone is judging themselves against photos online and therefore other people. I think its silly, if you really stop to think about it, to judge yourself from a photo that is staged, chosen out of many others, and edited. Thanks for this insight!

  8. April 27, 2019 by Lindsey Chao

    Hey Rachel! I really enjoyed your project. Being a teenager that uses social media, I, too, have felt that my body type wasn’t being represented as an ideal beauty standard, and that really made me think badly about how I looked. I really liked how you shared a lot of statistics using diagrams and graphs, as well as interviewing people at your school because it really put a face on the issue of body image. I think a lot of people think that on social media you need to show the best and perfect parts of your own lives, but sometimes that can not only be physically draining but also emotionally and psychologically exhausting. Thank you so much for educating people about this issue from a more scholarly perspective that’s easy to understand and really informative. Good job!

  9. April 28, 2019 by Taylor.Hurt

    Hi Rachel! I really liked the different resources you included in your presentation which made me feel less alone in the struggle of body image. It was really eye opening watching the video you created because when you would ask questions regarding beauty and when your interviewees feel beautiful I immediately thought of external qualities for myself. Your interviewees reminded me that it’s more about what is internal. Great job with this presentation!

  10. April 28, 2019 by Isabella

    Hi Rachel! Great work. This is definitely one of most interactive presentations I’ve seen. Something small that’s stood out to me was that men and women on your info graphic felt pressured at the same rate. I also love how you included intereviews from people at your school it really helps to humanize the people that this affects and to show its a problem everywhere. What are some ways for methods that you use to stop you from feeling insecure when seeing things online?

  11. April 28, 2019 by Kentaro

    Hi Rachel,

    I was really intrigued by the image of the Instagram post you shared. I think it’s really important for influencers on social media to understand the issue behind body image and spread that to their followers, who may be struggling with body image issues themselves. I think it’s great that you are sharing this topic because I know a lot of people that struggle with their body image, and it’s an important issue that needs to be discussed!

  12. April 28, 2019 by Maddie.Hatfield

    What a cool presentation! I like how you took something so meaningful to today’s world and tied in all the little factors that can stem from it. I think this is a very important issue and you handled it very well. I loved the infographics as well! Good job.

  13. April 28, 2019 by Amalie Getz

    Great job on this webpage! I think that body image is a really important topic that we need to be having more dialogue about, and you did a great job shedding light on this topic. Your incorporation of data was powerful, and it really enhanced the presentation. Additionally, I love that you incorporated your personal story and a little about yourself, because I think that this brought your page to life. What do you think that schools should be doing specifically to address this issue?

  14. April 29, 2019 by Sophia R Levin

    I really appreciate this project! I truly believe that the media has a great impact on body image for all people and is a serious problem. I love the interactive parts of your project, they really add to impact your point! The interviews really help as well! Do you believe that toys like barbies also have an impact on body image?

  15. April 29, 2019 by Nina.Owen

    Hi Rachel, I truly love your project and appreciate you for bringing even more awareness to this issue! I think the normalization of the self-deprecation that occurs within this century has been overlooked for far too long. Youth today do not value themselves or view their bodies for the unique beauty that they hold. I see nothing wrong with social media, I find myself scrolling through my feed for hours upon hours; however, the comparisons that I make between myself and other girls I see is what is wrong. There is no way to fully stop every teen from comparing themselves to others, but we do bear power to spread awareness and make room for an evolution towards a world that does not view anyone as less than simply for their body. Thank you, Rachel!

  16. April 30, 2019 by Ava.Glazier

    Hi Rachel – I LOVE your page. Your question at the top of the presentation really helped set the context and when I answered it I was already thinking about everything you were going to discuss which was great. I think that my favorite part of this project was the video you created from all the interviews. It seemed really genuine and personal. One question I would have for you is if you think it is good for these models to revise their captions. I can see both the benefits (real-life v painted life) and also the issues it addresses so I am wondering what you think about this.

  17. April 30, 2019 by Michaela Kim

    Hi Rachel, I absolutely love your page!! Something that really touched me was the video you put together with the help of your peers. It was inspiring to see someone young like me taking a stand on such a huge and prevalent topic. I think what you chose to share was super informative and important, and encouraged not only reflection but ultimately self-love. I think it’s amazing that I went into this page being kind of aware of my own body and what I’m conscious about, and now feel totally confident, heard, and loved. I can’t imagine how your page has touched others! Something I wanted to learn more about after reading your page was regulations/rules for models and how they differ in different countries. I think it would be super interesting to find out how other places are dealing with this issue. Thanks!

  18. April 30, 2019 by Abigail.Dutta

    Rachel, this is a very well done project. I can tell you researched this topic very well and it was super helpful. Your infographics were both a really effective way to display information too. I also like how you included how to help someone with an eating disorder because this is a very good way to spread awareness and help other people.

  19. May 01, 2019 by Sophie.Baron

    Hey! This is great, well done! I learned so much about body image and how society and an impact on that! Self-love and confidence is very important and I think you made a huge impact!

  20. May 03, 2019 by Mia Crum

    Hey Rachel!
    I really liked how you balanced out your writing and the pictures/videos through out your presentation. I also liked how your shared your story, it gave me something to relate to and make the whole topic feel like something I could connect to. What are some ways we could share this information with younger kids (ie: middle schoolers)?

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