Whether we’d accept it or not, social media plays a vital role in shaping our perception of beauty. We are continuously being influenced by online posts and images, which affects how we perceive our own physical appearance. In the modern digital age, entertainment media is a crucial part of our daily lives. Traditional mass media, such as television and newspapers, and modern media, including video games and movies, persistently represent a homogenous view of appearance characteristics and beauty. So much so that as a society, we have determined these beauty features to be ideal and have set them as the beauty standards.
Moreover, male and female beauty ideals are accompanied by solid and convincing messages informing the viewers why the portrayed appearance is ideal, how to achieve it, and how it fits with the sexual roles. As per human nature, everything that we observe is what we consider as reality. Hence, we look at the world around us to make sense of our lives and experiences. When we watch our role models and their lives, it provides us with a sense of self identity. However, if these role models, or anyone for that matter, are not similar to us and if we can’t relate to them, we feel left out and as if we don’t belong. This creates an internal crisis, further leading to multiple physical and mental disorders.
Empirical research suggests that exposure to appearance ideals in media leads to a wide variety of negative outcomes relating to body image such as, internalization of unrealistic body ideals, body dissatisfaction, self-objectification, body surveillance, excessive dieting, excessive exercising, eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia, and use of anabolic-androgenic steroids. These physical and mental disorders have become a prime area of concern as a substantial number of adults and children of all genders suffer from them. This can even impact people’s social life as you may not feel comfortable being around others or constantly obsessing over what you eat and how much you exercise.
Since childhood, young girls and teens are more likely to be praised for their looks rather than their thoughts and actions - so naturally, they think appearance is more important than character. Moreover, the media focuses more on representing women who are thin, attractive, and have sharp facial features. Photographs of such women are usually edited and rendered through technology. Hence teens often try to match beauty ideals that do not exist in the real world.
In fact, the media fails to accurately reflect the range of body types we see within our society—female characters and models often have smaller and thinner bodies than average, wear flattering clothing, have long eyelashes, and have sensual lips. Meanwhile, males are often shown as physically strong and muscular. On top of this, because these characters are often portrayed as being successful, accepted, sexually desirable, and happy, while overweight characters are commonly used as comic relief, teenagers feel the need to align with these societal beauty standards.
Additionally, exposing the youth to such sexualizing media leads to self-objectification, which feeds a destructive mindset of measuring one’s self-esteem by physical appearance. When rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are steeply rising, putting a stop to these distorted media representations is long overdue and more critical than ever.
Authentic representation of appearance ideals can be ensured by breaking harmful group stereotypes. For instance, only showing Asian people as quiet and nerdy or Black women as sexualized and dominant. Likewise, the media must be mindful of the portrayal of disability and what it means to be authentic. Differently-abled people are already given minimal representation in the media; if disabled people are visible on screen, they are depicted as unintelligent, a burden, or simply a prop to progress the story along. The character is reduced to one aspect of their identity: their disability. When portrayals are limited to this and people are diminished to just their disability, we expect them to be merely a side character in our world which leads to more discrimination and exclusion.
In this way, the media gets the power to create negative biases towards specific individuals or groups. However, if portrayed thoughtfully, narratives also can break stereotypes, dismantle biases and make our society more inclusive. Studies have shown that kids exposed to diverse portrayals of people since childhood grow up to be less discriminatory and more accepting human beings.
While the problem pertains, there has been some improvement in advertising and marketing campaigns in recent years. For example, Aerie, the lingerie retailer, created a campaign, #AerieREAL, to promote body positivity by using raw, unedited images that feature models of different racial backgrounds and body types and, more recently, models with disabilities and other medical issues. Similarly, Dove’s Girls Self Esteem campaign has a similar mission. Many popular retail brands, such as Target, Old Navy, Nike, and Forever 21, have followed suit by incorporating various body types or scaling back on retouching photos in their advertising.
A healthy or positive body image means being comfortable in your body and feeling good about how you naturally look. This includes what you think and feel about your appearance and how you judge your own self-worth. Women with a positive body image are more likely to have good physical and mental health and a lower risk of depression and low self-esteem. Social media can indeed impact body image positively in various ways. Health and wellness, fitness, and plant-based food accounts can all be inspirational models for some users. Through these frameworks, social media users can maintain a healthy and positive outlook on their body image.
To prevent negative body image, BBC recommended social media users to “CHANGE THE FOCUS OF THEIR FEEDS” and followers. Instead of following celebrities with heavily edited photos, “finding inspiring landscapes, delicious food, and cute dogs to fill your Instagram feed might just help you remember there’s more to life than what you look like.” While this isn’t a scientifically proven treatment method, it’s a step in the right direction.
Moreover, an article in Forbes offered tips on how to maintain a positive outlook on body image through social media, including:
- Unfollow or unfriend accounts that try to sell you products with their bodies.
- Keep up with accounts that promote healthy living with factual information.
- Tap into the way body-positive influencers treat body image.
- Avoid speaking negatively about your body, especially in real-life.
- Disconnect from social media to be active.
An article appearing on the National Eating Disorders Collaboration’s website also recommended: “Educating young people on appropriate social media use and to increase awareness that social media may not always reflect reality.” Educational measures can inform young people on the pitfalls of cyberbullying, the consequences of unfair or unethical body image comparisons, and the benefits of digital critical thinking tools.
As the website said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” So to the media - it is time to portray beauty in the real sense. Even though the challenges may look different on the outside, we can all relate to the pains and joys of what it means to be human. Only in this way can we truly make media portrayals more realistic.