Looking at the girl who had just posed for the event’s photographer, I found myself wanting to peel myself apart like an orange. I attended an opening last week where everyone in the room wore fitted clothes and edgy ensembles. When it was my turn to stand in front of the cameraman, in the open venue, I struggled to compose my usual modelling poise. There’s a current, low body confidence epidemic happening, how much of it can we blame on social media?
How bad are the stats?
Dazed Digital published results from a Fashion Retail Academy survey showing 57% of Brits have never felt body confidence. The article features a quote from the academy’s CEO who suggests unrealistic images are to blame. A piece on Thrive Global states 1 in 3 people’s low body confidence affects their mental health. Again, the publication mentions, “doctored images on social media platforms” as a cause.
Even before editing, distortion seeps through online photos. There are the new outfit purchases, fancy photography equipment (maybe a professional), selected locations, overdone makeup and carefully chosen angles. The biggest Instagram accounts rarely leave their image in the hands of family and friends. They don’t spontaneously visit a place and snap spare of the moment pictures. So already, way before Photoshop, most people cannot emulate the ‘influencers’ they admire.
Unquestionably, perfectly crafted images may leave some of us feeling insecure, yet is there enough specific data to point significant blame? Earlier this year, BBC wrote that research on this topic is still in the early stages and subsequently complex. With that said, the broadcaster has noted 2016 research linking photo-based activities with negative body image.
Other than social media, what affects body confidence?
I asked this question on my Instagram stories and received some expected but also varied results. While most answered social sites and magazine images, a few gave responses not linked to media influence:
- Eva Sultana @journeywith_e: “Whether I am thinner or wider than men I’m interested in.”
- Anonymous user: “How I feel mentally and the people I’m around.”
- Chita Subramaniam @chitasubramanian: “When someone passes a negative comment” (referring to offline).
The Psychology of Eating discuss the impact family can have on our body acceptance. Beyond praise and compliments, the institute states: “Parents’ attitudes toward themselves trickle down to their children.” Parents who notice weight loss or gain can attribute to self-scrutiny, as can a lack of parent emotional support.
Growing up, I watched my mum join fitness classes with friends and my dad walking almost everywhere. Like most parents, they allowed me and my sister to eat what we wanted, provided we consumed our vegetables and ate dinner. Though I can’t recall my mum ever complaining about her body in front of me, I was aware she preferred to keep herself at a specific weight and sometimes avoided clothes which she felt made her look “fat”. Does that behaviour, normal to many of us, shape our body image happiness? What degree of parental attitude can be blamed for contributing to our outside self-esteem?
Body confidence: The problem with size and congratulations
After speaking to some Instagram friends, I’m convinced the people around us hone the greatest power to affect our body confidence. The people you choose to date and hang out with can critically tip the scale. One of my worst habits is trying to edit myself to fit the preferences of others. When I’m experiencing a low period, I’ll begin to annoyingly ask: “Do you think I look better with more weight?”, “Would you say my stomach is flat enough? Could I look prettier?” [Isn’t that the worst question].
I know it’s attention seeking to ask, and very irritating to answer. One partner I noticed, enthusiastically complimented me each time I lost weight. He’d always say, “You must be a size 6!” [US size 2]. “No”, I’d gush. “I barely fit in a size 8.” As I continued to lose pounds, I eventually did reach the coveted size 6 – my teenage proportions a decade later. I thought this would grant me the body confidence I craved. It merely made me refocus on my upper body not matching my lower – new problems to fix.
For years I was part of the “fitness community” and uploaded photos of myself wearing workout gear – I usually exercised before posing. Although I support the community and think it benefits many, I began to delve in the negative side and started placing self-contentment on feedback. It’s a slippery slope to compliment people on their ‘progress’. A friend said to me one day, “Laura, I’m not commenting on your appearance anymore”, and that was the best response he could give to my self-doubting, lousy questions.
It’s not all about social media
Family, friends, bullying, negative comments, our own thoughts, mental health, partners… there’s numerous factors that affect our body confidence. Social media is merely another factor. It’s an easy one to target – imagine the upheaval if newspapers and TV pointed fingers at parents. I could write a book on the reasons I have felt dissatisfied with my body.
We should keep being aware of social apps and investigating the implications they have on young people. But I also believe (I’m not an expert in any sense), we should keep a broader perspective and stop immediately thinking online images are our biggest problem.