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Body Image

How Filtered Social Media Photos Can Affect Body Image

Exploring the link between Instagram photos and body image.

Key points

  • Thin bodies presented in the media can have a negative effect on female body image perception.
  • Girls exposed to manipulated Instagram photos reported lower levels of body satisfaction.
  • Girls who compared themselves with others had lower body image scores in comparison to girls who didn’t compare themselves to others.
Julia Tims/Shutterstock
Source: Julia Tims/Shutterstock

As we all know, social media platforms allow users the possibility to edit and manipulate the photos they post and thus manage their online appearance. When viewed by others, these photos may ultimately be perceived as a depiction of reality. Furthermore, when we perceive other people to be similar to ourselves, we are more likely to identify with them, ultimately leading us to make comparisons.

Previous research looking at the thin bodies presented on TV or in magazines has suggested that they may produce a negative effect on female body image perception. This is explained by negative contrast theory, meaning that women generate a contrast between themselves and the thin models they view. In addition, viewing images of thin models may create a thinness fantasy, thus motivating a drive to thinness. While such comparisons may be the case following exposure to TV and magazine images, exposure to images on social media may arguably be even more persuasive, given that users are exposed to such a medium almost continually throughout the day.

Furthermore, adolescent girls may be especially vulnerable to such a social media-influenced negative contrast because of the rapid psychological development taking place at this age. Therefore, it is relevant to inquire as to the effect of such photo manipulation on young girls.

In order to investigate this issue, Mariska Kleemans and colleagues from Radboud University in the Netherlands employed 144 adolescent girls, who were divided into two groups based on their inclination to make social comparisons with others. Half of each group was presented with 10 original Instagram selfie photos, while the other half of each group was presented with 10 manipulated Instagram selfie photos. Manipulated photos were edited in such a way as to remove any eye bags, wrinkles, and impurities and also by reshaping the legs and waist of the photo subjects to make them look thinner. All photos were displayed to the participants in an Instagram-type format.

Next, participants were presented with the Body Image State Scale (Cash, Fleming, Alindogan, Steadman, & Whitehead, 2002) to assess their physical appearance. More specifically, their body size, shape, weight, feelings of physical attractiveness, and looks in comparison to how they thought the average person looks. In their analysis, the researchers also controlled for level of education, as participants with a higher level of education generally have a more positive body image (Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat, & Anschutz, 2018).

The effect of manipulated photos

The researchers found that the girls presented with the manipulated photos rated them as prettier and more attractive than girls presented with original photos. Furthermore, the girls were unaware that the photos were manipulated in any way, indicating that they thought the photos represented a true reality.

They also found that girls exposed to the manipulated photos reported lower levels of body satisfaction in comparison to those girls who were shown original photos. When they looked at educational levels, they found that this too affected body image, in that those with a higher level of education reported having a more positive body image compared to those with a lower level of education.

The effect of social comparison

Girls who had a greater tendency to compare themselves with others were found to have lower body image scores in comparison to girls with a lesser tendency to compare themselves to others. Yet overall, the body image scores of girls exposed to manipulated Instagram photos and who also had a greater tendency to compare themselves with others reported the lowest body image scores, illustrating the combined effect of manipulated photos and a tendency to make comparisons. Interestingly, however, there was little difference in body image satisfaction scores reported between girls in the manipulated photo condition and the original photo condition for those less likely to compare themselves with others. Whereas girls in the high social comparison group, even when presented with original photos, reported a negative influence on their body image satisfaction. Therefore, body image satisfaction scores seem to depend more on the tendency to make social comparisons rather than just viewing manipulated photos.

The consequences

One extension to this study could be an assessment of the longer-term consequences of exposure to photos on social media. Nevertheless, the finding that viewing photos of strangers in artificial settings can lead to negative body image perceptions is concerning. It may be that participants in this study believed that what they were viewing was, in fact, a true view of reality. Furthermore, it is likely social comparison may be greater when Instagram users view images of those similar to themselves, such as their peers, rather than just strangers, which was the case in this study.


Cash, T., Fleming, E. C., Alindogan, J., Steadman, L., & Whitehead, A. (2002). Beyond body image as a trait: the development and validation of the body image states scale. Eating Disorders, 10, 103–113.

Kleemans, M., Daalmans, S., Carbaat, I., & Anschutz, D. (2018). Picture Perfect: The Desire Effect of Manipulated Instagram Photos on Body Image in Adolescent Girls. Media Psychology, 21 (1), 93-110.

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