Power and Prejudice

Scientific perspectives on power, subtle prejudice, and discrimination

Does Instagram Promote Positive Body Image?

Using social media to empower rather than oppress

www.sarahgervais.com
The hullaballoo over whether Instagram owns your pictures or not is far from over. Although one of Instagram’s co-founders recently stated that “We don’t own your photos – you do,” it remains unclear what Instagram might do with the content of your photos that you post through Instagram services (think about status updates translating into advertisements on Facebook), despite whether Instagram claims ownership or not.

What is clear is that Instagram (and other social media) has allowed the public to reclaim photography as a source of empowerment in a way that has never been possible before. Psychologists have long focused on the oppressive nature of photography in the media. For example, in print advertising, the camera lens often focuses on women’s bodies instead of their faces (Archer, Iritani, Kimes, & Barrios, 1983). And those bodies are flawless in every regard – perfectly proportioned, extremely thin, without blemishes, and, of course, young and white. Supposedly, this reflects what “we,” as a culture, picture to be beautiful, but in actuality, it reflects what advertisers want us to believe is beautiful.

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Exposure to this very narrowly defined viewfinder of beauty profoundly changes how girls and women think and feel about their own bodies (Kilbourne & Pipher, 1999). In fact, through a process referred to as self-objectification (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) women take an outsider’s perspective of their bodies, seeing themselves through the same viewfinder that a photographer might use, with a telephoto lens zoomed in on their “problem” areas. In the short term, this is distracting and promotes shame and anxiety and in the long term, it promotes eating disorders, depression, and sexual dysfunction. Boys and men are not immune. Rather than extreme thinness, however, their internal photographer prompts them to desire leanness and muscularity, using extreme exercise, dieting, and steroids to achieve just the right picture of themselves.

Bad news in how we feel about our bodies translates into good news for advertisers and those companies they represent. When we feel crummy, instead of looking to the source of our discontent – those picture perfect photos – we instead look for the perfect product – dieting plan, skin cream, gym membership, jeans, push-up bra, or cosmetic procedure to make us feel better. Of course, by design, this struggle is unwinnable. If we are lusting over a look that is not based on reality, we can never realistically achieve that image. And so the cycle begins again.

Although research is still needed to examine how it specifically impacts the body image of women and men, I like to think that Instagram offers a quiet resistance to the barrage of perfect images that we face each day. Rather than being bombarded with those creations (yes, they are created usually through Photoshop) in popular magazines, television, and web pages that feed our discontent, we can look through our Instagram feed and see images of real people – with beautiful diversity. Bodies of different shapes and sizes, with diverse skin tones and complexions, without smiles always plastered to their faces. Although flawless images still pervade Western media, the imperfect images that make their way onto my Instagram feed are much more interesting and no less beautiful.

Instagram also allows us the opportunity to see below the surface. We capture of glimpse into the makings of people’s daily lives. We get a sense of those things that make the everyday extraordinary – the things that inspire us, pique our curiosity, deeply touch us, and make us smile.

Instagram has also taken a progressive stance on discouraging negative body image by urging users to not promote or glorify self-harm (including anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders). Hashtags that promote eating disorders, such as #thinspiration #proanorexia and #probulimia, for example, are unsearchable.

Although certainly not without it’s body image evils (I selected a flattering profile picture), social media has the opportunity to challenge the perfect images that attack our psyche each day. That is why it is so disconcerting to know that, once again, photography may be used to oppress rather than empower its users, depending on how the legal lines eventually get draw for Instagram.

Does your Instagram feed your psyche or feed your discontent?

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Copyright 2013 by Sarah J. Gervais. All rights reserved.

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social-law psychologist at the University of Nebraska.

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