Social Media Fueling Women's Body Image Issues

More women than ever are reporting negative body image issues, and one of the main culprits is social media, according to a new survey of 1,000 women ages 18-40 conducted by Glamour. The survey, carried out for the magazine by Ohio State University assistant professor Jesse Fox, is a follow-up to the original Glamour survey from 1984 -- and the comparison is pretty depressing.

Overall, 54% of women polled in the most recent survey said they are unhappy with their body, and 80% said simply looking in the mirror makes them feel bad, according to Glamour. The first number is up from 41% in 1984. And according to Fox, there is no question what is behind the increase: “The biggest thing that stands out is social media. In the 2014 survey, a huge number of women—64 percent—report that looking at pictures on sites like Facebook and Instagram makes them feel bad about their body.”

Glamour noted that a chorus of experts echoed Fox’s assertion, including American University professor Evelyn Meier, who described social media as “a bigger platform than ever for us to obsess over appearance.”

Ironically, whereas before women might compare themselves to celebrities, always knowing at some level that they represented unobtainable perfection, part of the problem with social media is that it allows women to compare themselves to more “regular women,” who still however present idealized images of themselves (thank you, Instagram filters!). Indeed 60% of women surveyed by Glamour said that they use digital tools to crop, filter, or retouch their images.

The basic principle is the same -- close control of one’s personal image using static, carefully composed photographs -- but now everyone’s doing it, creating a psychologically toxic environment of constant competition and comparison. Of course while media lets everyone present themselves like movie stars (regardless of whether they actually look like one) the individual user is still looking at her real self in the mirror, without the benefit of Instagram filters, and the comparison -- even though false -- is bound to be unflattering.

It’s worth noting that even though Glamour says women nowadays compare themselves to “the girl next door,” that’s not actually true: if they were literally comparing themselves to their neighbors they would be able to see the real people behind the images, however carefully made up, coiffed, and bespanxed they might be. The problem is that in our virtual social world they are comparing themselves to “friends” whom they may only “see” online, with all the attendant risk of skewed presentation and perception.

This isn’t the first study to suggest that social media is having a negative impact on body image and psychological well-being for many people. Recently researchers at the University of Flinders in Australia surveyed adolescent girls and found that social media may be discouraging them from participating in sports by creating an unattainable ideal, prompting girls to withdraw from physical activity because they feel embarrassed about their bodies.

In July a survey of 1,500 British adults conducted by a UK charity for the disabled called Scope found that half of respondents ages 18-34 said they feel ugly or unattractive because of social media, and 30% said it makes them feel lonely. Another survey of 1,000 British women by Forza Supplements found that 82% of respondents “edit” their holiday photographs before posting them online in order to ensure that they are shown to the greatest advantage; 34% use filters on Instagram to finesse their appearance. The most common reason for being unhappy with photos was “looking fat.”

Back in April I wrote about another study by researchers at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Iowa, and the University of Ohio, which found that Facebook use may result in an increased likelihood of negative body image issues among young women. The study, titled “Facebook and College Women's Bodies: Social Media's Influence on Body Image and Disordered Eating,” surveyed 881 college women about their Facebook use, eating and exercise habits, and body image. The researchers examined the prevalence of negative body image among young women after looking at other people’s photos or posts, and how often subjects compared their own bodies to their friends’. Overall, young women who spent more time on Facebook were more likely to compare their bodies to their friends’ and to have negative feelings about their bodies. In fact the researchers were able to predict when subjects would have negative feelings based on how much time they spent looking at others’ photos on Facebook.

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