At times, the flood of overly-perfected images of women we see might threaten to carry you away. On billboards, in magazines, on the sides of buildings, in images hung above the aisles of your favorite drugstore — it’s almost impossible to avoid images that leave so many women feeling awful about how they look.
When we take into account the stream of idealized images of women we actually opt in to seeing on Instagram and other social media platforms, the situation can feel even more overwhelming. For women, being exposed to these images, even briefly, can trigger body shame, body dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, and eating disordered attitudes and behaviors.
But why are we so influenced by these images? After all, if we know they’re hurting us, can’t we just disregard them? If we know that many of these images are unrealistic, unhealthy, or downright fake — why isn’t that enough to keep them from damaging our body esteem?
There’s a simple answer to those questions. Photoshop-perfect images of women affect us so much primarily because we compare ourselves to them, even if we’d rather not do so.
If you want to evaluate how quickly you ran a race, you might compare your time to other runners’. If you’re interested in determining how well you’re doing in a class, you probably want to know what your grade is relative to the grades of your classmates’. It’s not so different for physical attractiveness. We seem to have an innate drive to know where we stand in the beauty race, so we often can’t help but compare ourselves to all the impossibly beautiful media images we see.
Years ago, I conducted a study to determine how critical young women were of these types of images. What I saw was impressive. The majority of women knew the beauty standards they were seeing in media images were unrealistic. They called the images out for being fake, unhealthy, and damaging to women’s self-esteem. That’s the good news. The sad news is that this critical stance didn’t stop them from comparing themselves to the women in these images and wanting to look just like them. As one research subject put it, “I wish my shoulders looked like her airbrushed ones.”
This might seem counterintuitive. If we know better, why would we compare ourselves to the women in these images?
Here’s how I often conceptualize the problem: We’re great at fighting back against these media images, but we’re often fighting back after we’ve already lost the battle. What I mean is that the comparison process happens so quickly and effortlessly that it’s difficult to stop. Instead, the best we can do is try to patch up the psychological wounds that process has already created.
Recent research out of two universities in France provides new evidence on just how quick and effortless this comparison process is. The researchers showed young women media images of ultra-thin women (the type typical of fashion magazines and advertisements) and then assessed women’s anxiety about the appearance of their bodies. Here’s the catch though: The images were shown for such a brief period of time (just 20 milliseconds) that the women didn’t even consciously realize they’d seen them. In other words —the images were presented subliminally. Even at this low level, women still felt worse about their bodies after being exposed to these images.
What does this mean in practical terms? If these comparisons happen so quickly and without our control or consent, what should we do? Here’s the take-home message: It’s a great idea to be critical of media standards of beauty, but your best bet in limiting their destructive influence on your psyche isn’t to spend more time critiquing them. Instead, do everything you can to avoid seeing them in the first place.
Limit your exposure. Walk away. Look away. Turn the page. Skip watching movies and television shows that traffic in body shaming.
Hide. Unfollow. Unfriend. To the extent that it’s possible, curate your social media feeds. Turn them into something that makes you stronger and healthier, not something that fills you with doubt and self-loathing. Given that we generally can’t avoid comparing ourselves with all those beauty images, do your best to fill your visual world with alternatives. I, for one, am a big fan of puppies. Who wouldn’t rather look at these puppies in a social media feed than yet another body-shaming before-and-after picture?