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The Influence of Social Networks on The Perception of Body Image

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Technology issues are arising from the use of social media. These issues are quite similar to the ones arising from the use of television and magazines, except they are a little bit different. The following studies will show how social media has affected women’s body image negatively, how comparison to peers is the most common form of developing low self-esteem when using social media, and how this has affected men and children in different ways.

In the article Body Image by G. Holland and M. Tiggeman, a research study has shown that SNS (social networking sites) use is associated with body image and disordered eating (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). Researchers showed that when people were seeking negative feedback through status updates and when they were uploading and viewing photos, the use of social networking sites began to have negative effects (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). The biggest negative effect is appearance-based social comparison (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). Although the goal of having social networking sites is “greater social connectedness and wellbeing,” the problems became increased loneliness (Holland and Tiggeman, 101).

Body Image is defined as a “person’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about their body” (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). The article continues to explain that “body dissatisfaction occurs when views of the body are negative and involves a perceived discrepancy between a person’s assessment of their actual and ideal body” (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). Research that was done in the US and Australia have shown how adolescent females and grown women have a greater chance at experiencing body image issues and eating disorders than their male peers (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). 50% of adolescent girls that were surveyed are unsatisfied with their bodies (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). When a person has body dissatisfaction, they can have negative consequences in their physical and mental health, such as low self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression (Holland and Tiggeman, 101).

Mass media has always been a big part in gaining body dissatisfaction. Women’s fashion magazines and tv often show images of the “ideal body shape,” and promote beauty standards that are hard to obtain and are often created via computer editing. Many years of research have shown how these standards and disordered eating are related, using sociocultural and objectification theories. The sociocultural theory is when women want to reach thin beauty looks but fail, so it results in body dissatisfaction and they start to compare themselves to these (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). The objectification theory is when females are looked at as objects in Western societies and are rated by appearance and are often oversexualized (Holland and Tiggeman, 101). Self-objectification in a person will come from constant looking at one’s own appearance and will cause them to have shame and anxiety of one’s own body (Holland and Tiggeman, 101).

Studies are showing that the internet is contributing to body image issues in younger people through social networking sites, which unlike traditional media, are peer-generated. In a study that measured both genders and considered time and frequency on social networking sites, researchers measured the interactions and number of “friends” in several different countries. The study measured personal bodily satisfaction when users were exposed to both attractive and non-attractive physical other users, as well as both overweight and underweight users (Holland and Tiggeman, 103, 108). The study determined that there is “greater emotional investment and negative feedback-seeking were related to body image and eating concerns” (Holland and Tiggeman, 108). Also, “engagement in photo-based activities on Facebook was related to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating” (Holland and Tiggeman, 108). When considering the sociocultural theory, because social networking sites are fast and easy to use, this will lead to self-comparison very often, and people will constantly have self-evaluation and try to compare themselves with similar people instead of those that are not like them, showing that peers are more important to compare to rather than celebrities (Holland and Tiggeman, 108). When looking at the objectification theory, social networking sites are a very big place to display objectified images of women.

In the article The effects of active social media engagement with peers on body image in young women by Jacqueline Hogue and Jennifer Mills, it emphasizes the idea that “on social media, young adult women most frequently make upward appearance comparisons to peers and rarely compare their appearance to family” (Hogue and Mills, 1). Their research measured that ASME (Active social media engagement), especially with photo-based ASME, “has a greater impact on psychology than passive social media consumption,” which is showing significant positive relation to how women want to appear thinner (Hogue and Mills, 1). The study also showed how Facebook photo activity somewhat can relate to “thin ideal internalization, self-objectification, and drive for thinness, and a small negative correlation with weight satisfaction” (Hogue and Mills, 1). This research shows that women are more likely to use social media sites more than men for photos and photo-based ASME, but also that men are more likely to use social media sites to find friends (Hogue and Mills, 1). Women are most likely to show photos of what they think is their best selves and often feel worse about their appearances, but this is less so with men (Hogue and Mills, 1). This study only focused on young adult women and it showed that the women who did ASME with attractive peers had worsened body image, and those that did ASME with family had no affect on their body image (Hogue and Mills, 3). The conclusion was that any woman that viewed any attractive young women on SNS would have a negative body image (Hogue and Mills, 3).

However, the up-and-coming generation of kids are going to be impacted by social media the worst because they are growing up in an environment filled with use of just cellphones. In the article Social comparison and body image in adolescence: a grounded theory approach by A. Krayer and D.K. Ingledew, and R. Iphofen, it shows that the comparison process amongst adolescents is used for identity development (core category), in which they compare themselves to others (targets), and this study focuses on what they compare (attributes) and how (comparison appraisal) (Krayer et. Al, 892). This is based on a social comparison theory, which is when adolescents use social comparison to put together their own thoughts about the social world, and it helps them find a sense of identity (Krayer et. Al, 892). The adolescents have three types of appraisals: self-evaluation, self-improvement, and self-enhancement. Self-evaluation is when a person uses comparisons based on themselves versus others in areas such as social expectations, skills, and attributes (Krayer et. Al, 893) Self-improvement is when a person uses comparison to learn how to become better at something or how to solve a problem (Krayer et. Al, 893). Self-enhancement comparisons can help protect a person’s self-worth and esteem during hard times so that the person can still be positive about themselves (Krayer et. Al, 893). Sometimes this is when a person takes information about the other person they are comparing themselves to and judges it to be lesser or have no benefits for that person and so that they can feel superior about themselves (Krayer et. Al, 893).

This study showed many different things about adolescents, and that they were less affected than young adult women. This study measured surveys of 12 to 14 year old children in two schools. A study has shown that for young males, body image dissatisfaction occurs more based on muscularity rather than weight as it is with women (Krayer et. Al, 893) The effects of social comparison processes varies amongst age groups. There are many positive effects found for self-improvement and self-enhancement comparisons immediately, but these actually produce negative effects in the long run as the comparisons are often of idealized imagery (Krayer et. Al, 894). Weight and shape did not affect how closely these children became friends, but they did expect their friends to have similar attitudes about their image (Krayer et. Al, 895). Many avoided “fat-talk,” and boys added that they knew that girls were over-concerned about their appearances (Krayer et. Al, 895). Friends are a very common target so groups of friends were important in achieving acceptance. Physique is not important, but personality was central to a friendship (Krayer et. Al, 895). Those that were open about having a hard time becoming accepted or making friends were the only students that had a more perceptive approach regarding height and weight and other physical attributes (Krayer et. Al, 895). When socially comparing with media, these students only really targeted celebrities of similar age or interests or those that are considered to be inspiring; girls were more interested in outfits and boys were more interested in athletes; both discussed anything or anyone on tv (Krayer et. Al, 897). Girls were also critical of looks that seemed inappropriate and unrealistic (Krayer et. Al, 897). Self-improvement comparisons were generally used for inspiration; boys focused on physical skills and girls focused on socially acceptable skills and behaviors (Krayer et. Al, 897). Boys were less likely to discuss body image and thought it was socially unacceptable and they only really wanted to discuss height, strength, or speed when using sports as a gateway (Krayer et. Al, 897). Students were aware of the use of attractive people in advertisements but also found it to be “a bit stupid really” because these people did not guarantee product quality (Krayer et. Al, 898). However, some studies show that not all individuals had negative reactions when shown idealized photos of females. (Krayer et. Al, 893). It turns out that “evaluative comparisons are more likely to produce negative effects, whereas improvement comparisons could produce positive or negative effects. Improvement comparisons are more likely to have positive outcomes if the individual believes that they might attain the ideal and the other is not perceived as a competitor” (Krayer et. Al, 899). But this study was difficult because young boys were reluctant to discuss body image and thought that it was a “feminine or gay issue” (Krayer et. Al, 900). This ideal has a lot to do with still figuring out their levels of acceptance and desirability.

Social media seems to have worse effects on other ethnic groups, and it is unsure whether this is because of cultural differences, especially if the other ethnic groups are in America. In the article Brown Beauty: Body Image, Latinas, and the Media by D. Milton Stokes, Christopher F. Clemens, and Diana I. Rios, a study uses social cognitive theory, social comparison theory, and cultivation theory to show how social media is used in the development of body image and ethnic identity in Latina women. In addition to the desirable thin female figure for women of all types, Latina women are faced with problems regarding having a smaller waist, lighter skin, and larger bust and is perceived to be connected to status, desirability, and happiness (Stokes et. Al, 1). Before, some researchers thought that Latin Americans disregarded thinner looks as attractive, and findings suggest that Latinas have a worse level of body satisfaction than Caucasian females. They strive to be both thin and curvy and are trying to build acceptance for curvy looks. The average BMI of a model is 16.3, but the average BMI of an average female is 28.7, in which 18.5 is considered low normal, and these small BMI models are shown everywhere in the media, especially social media. Dissatisfaction comes from seeing thin people images and internalization, which comes from presence in media and social media engagement. Convenient social comparisons are generally from peers and social media. Body image issues for Latina women come from 4 common themes: he influence of peers and possible male partners on body satisfaction what a good body should look like is, difficulties in making healthy eating and physical activities choices as a function of college life, messages about body shape and weight from family or friends or society, and cultural disparities in body-ideals, including the influence of the media and acculturation issues. Prevention of the negative side effects of being viewed oversexualized will come from support from peers and family.

There are several theories that this study showed. The cultivation theory is when heavy media exposure changes the viewer’s perception of reality, “creating difficulty distinguishing reality from media depictions”. This is leading to a distorted sense of body image. When media continues to portray certain themes, people, and values, this becomes social reality for viewers. Studies show that negative impacts on body image come from music videos, dramas, and competition reality tv shows. This is described in a way where “firsthand experience resonates with individuals and actually facilitates resorting to mental shortcuts, demonstrating cultivation” (Stokes et. Al, 6). A study showed that if shown shows or other media about Mexican Americans, Mexican American participants found a better relative sense of self and had feelings of ethnic identity. In this way, Latina women also found themselves more satisfied with their bodies after viewing Black media rather than mainstream Caucasian media. This uses the social comparison theory, where after viewing sexualized photos, young women of all ethnic groups were more likely to describe themselves in size and shape rather than those who did not view sexualized photos. They were also more likely to mention their ethnicity if shown sexualized photos of Caucasian women (Stokes et. Al, 8). Latinas often described themselves more positively however. Like the study about the adolescents, this one showed that women are more likely to use targets that are similar to themselves for body comparison. Latinas were more likely to compare themselves to high status peers on social media than television characters.“The way people respond to media depends on not only the mere membership of a specific group identity, such as White or Black, but also the strength or the level of the racial or ethnic identity” (Stokes et. Al, 10).

Also, one positive idea from this research is that with friend and family support, there is less desire to be thin like the women in the media (Stokes et. Al, 11). When mothers feel positively about their appearance, so do daughters, and they receive less criticism from their mothers. However, dissatisfied girls often were the ones receiving the most criticism from their mothers. The greater the BMI of either the mother or the daughter, the more likely they were to be dissatisfied (Stokes et. Al, 11). This is usually because “body policing” is prevalent amongst Latinos due to health problem concerns (Stokes et. Al, 12). This affects beauty as well. Girls often receive mixed messages from their mothers about losing or gaining weight and are unsure how to satisfy them (Stokes et. Al, 12). Because of this, Latinos are more likely to develop eating disorders than any other group, a study predicts (Stokes et. Al, 13). Social cognitive theory describes when people “receive reinforcement for learning new behaviors through vicarious learning… When behavioral models are rewarded, the rewards serve as vicarious reinforcement for observers” (Stokes et. Al, 14). In this case, females, especially Latina women, get an unrealistic idea of body image by constantly watching thin women in media getting luxury items, beauty, power, and fame.

Overall, social media like any other media is just a more convenient and faster way to develop poor self image, as is described in the article How Social Media Is a Toxic Mirror by Rachel Simmons. There is so much cross-cultural evidence that connects social media use to self-objectification in adolescents, body image concerns, body surveillance, dieting, and a drive for thinness. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are what teens are using for approval of their appearances and for comparisons. One study found that female college students using Facebook were likely to link look to self-worth. ​There are too many apps that allow alterations of photos, so now there is a thin line between a “like” and feeling a sense of ranking. In years past, it was a little harder to tet these feelings through magazines since they were only bought periodically, but now obtaining pictures of desirable looks is instant thanks to technology. Going for “wellness” has affected body image disorders as well since fitness celebrities are all over social media promoting “clean eating,” and there is a lot of negative language implying guilt for body weight issues. As the author herself stated, “I had found wellness… I was not well.” While young adults are media literate, who knows how social media literate they are? Simmons suggests that as parents, people should question their kids why do they modify their appearance online, what do they gain, and from whom?

Overall, the use of social media has proven negative effects, even though it was first started to do good. People should limit social media use (likely will not happen so), but it would be better to have social networking education and media literacy programs to combat these issues. There is no research yet on social media use by middle-aged or older women and the effects on body image, and this should also be studied, as well as the effects on different nations. Most studies only measured Facebook usage, so the use of other major sites like Instagram and Snapchat should be looked into since many have different functions. Since social media is a very recently made tool, if more studies are done, it will probably be better in helping to stop people from getting a quicker negative view on themselves. 

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The Influence of Social Networks on the Perception of Body Image. (2023, February 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
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