New study reveals the most dangerous social media sites for body image
Body image is something that, in a perfect world, nobody would have to think about. Instead, it’s become the central battle in the fight for no more “too”: Too skinny, too fat, too much or less of anything. Those labels, when applied to impressionable children, especially girls, leave lasting effects about what it means to have the “perfect” body, an idea in and of itself meaningless when confronted with the vast diversity of human bodies.
But while the body image battle has, for adults, coalesced around fashion magazines and advertisements, with the UK’s advertising regulator going so far as to ban excessive Photoshop use, most teens are grappling with body image on a much more intimate basis: On social media.
A new study from UC Davis conducted studies on “thinspiration”/”thinspo” imagery on Pinterest and Twitter, two social media sites with primarily female users (80% and 53%, respectively). Researchers looked at “image type, image purpose, image content, body depiction, additional tags, explicitness of attire, sexual suggestiveness, and social endorsement (comments or shares)” to gauge how users were interpreting those images. While the major social media sites, Pinterest and Twitter included, have long since formally banned pro-anorexia tags (one major contributor to the online “thinspo” movement), what researchers were able to find is still troubling.
Their analysis: “Across both websites, the majority of pics depicted the pelvis (80 percent), abdomen (80 percent), and/or thighs (78 percent). More than half, 57.3 percent, were partially clad and a full three-quarters appeared sexually suggestive.” However, where they differed was in how targeted the images appeared: Pinterest “thinspo” tended to show more muscular bodies in less sexually suggestive poses, and often included the subjects’ heads; Twitter “thinspo” showcased bonier bodies, more sexually suggestive poses, and often focused on a single part of the body versus the entire thing. So while the tag itself is still problematic, Pinterest users were engaging with images more similar to “fitspiration”/”fitspo” in nature (which showcase thin, but muscular full bodies), while Twitter users were engaging more with idealized fragments of some “perfect” jigsaw body.
By the researchers’ metrics, this makes Twitter the more dangerous of the two. Why so? The devil, as always, is in the details.
For one, Twitter has way more teen users: According to the Pew Research Center, 33% of all teen users are on Twitter versus Pinterest, whose teen user percentage is negligible. Additionally, the overall focus of the Twitter images was on individual body parts, rather than whole bodies. One of the researchers explains that, “If we are exposed to images where just a body part is featured, and those images are also sexualized, we begin to think about ourselves as just an instrument intended to expressly serve the purpose of others. And it leads to a lot of health issues as well.” It’s the same problem with targeted body part exercise: You cannot “perfect” specific areas, only improve overall health and fitness.
The impact of social media on body image is still difficult to measure, but more and more teens are engaging with images subtly endorsing eating disorders even if they aren’t looking for that — 8% of the Twitter images were also cross-posted with pro-eating disorder tags, and many are also tagged with “fitspo” and other health-related tags. Social media is also more insidious than traditional advertising, in that crowd-sourced “likes” and “shares” reinforce those images as “right” by users. And, the study doesn’t get into even more teen-specific media like Instagram, Snapchat, and WeHeartIt.
But at the core of this all: Even as these images preach the gospel of a certain body type and image, there are also plenty of other outlets, online and otherwise, that are set on correcting and dispelling myths about how bodies “should” look. Because real talk: There isn’t a “perfect” body; instead, there are just our bodies, beautiful and imperfect and interesting in their own ways. A wise woman once sang, “Perfection is a disease of a nation” — and though it takes some work to get there, self-love and self-acceptance are the cure. We’re all in this perfection trap together, but we can also see through it, and see each other through it.