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Body Image

Healthy Influences, Not Influencers

Taking charge of our social influences for healthier body image.

Key points

  • Body-positive influencers can be harmful to women's body image.
  • Women can build a healthier body image by developing other aspects of their identity, among other behaviors.
  • We can help our friends and daughters build healthy body image by modeling online self-care behaviors.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the negative effects of social media influencers on women’s body image. For ourselves and for those of us who have daughters, it is worth thinking about whether or how to participate in influencer culture.

Are all of these influences bad? Not necessarily. Recent media articles have given sound advice on the importance of being choosy about whom we follow. Some influencers aim to help women’s body image, for example, by sharing their insecurities, or posting candid photos rather than impossibly toned abs. Others emphasize body-health and functionality over appearance.

But does this content really inspire us, or just point us back to the “thin ideal” prized by our culture? The answer may differ from one woman to another, but science has examined influencer content and drawn conclusions that apply to most women. Here is what we know:

  • Body Positivity (#BoPo). In recent years, many voices have challenged the traditional body ideals for women, calling them out for the unrealistic demands they place on women. Body positive content focuses on appreciating body diversity and expanding the definitions of beauty. Research has shown that body positive social media content is associated with greater body appreciation compared to viewing thin-ideal images or even appearance-neutral images (Cohen, Fardouly, Newton-John, & Slater, 2019). But both thin-ideal and body positive Instagram images increase women’s self-objectification — or viewing their bodies as objects to be judged — compared with appearance-neutral images. Because self-objectification is linked with negative body image, we encourage women to decide what is in their personal best interests by considering how these posts actually affect them, rather than assuming that BoPo content does what it claims.
  • Fitspiration (#Fitspo). Many women want to become healthier and look to social media for community on this issue. Fitspiration content presumably exists to inspire healthier lifestyles by posting images related to healthy eating and exercising. Although this type of content has inspired some women, research finds that “fitspiration” doesn’t inspire most women (Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015). Instead, fitspo tends to promote unrealistic expectations and narrow definitions of beauty. Because these images can have the opposite of their intended effect, women should carefully consider how these posts make them feel personally and whether they are helpful in their own health journey. Also, misinformation is common in the health and wellness social media sphere, so it is worth looking closely at the credentials of the influencers that we follow.
  • Bounce-back bodies. A persistent threat to a woman’s body image is being seen as having “let herself go.” To deflect this stigma, some influencers share their post-partum “bounce-back” photos, showcasing their hard work to return their body to its pre-partum condition. There is nothing wrong with pride in one’s body, but science indicates that these images usually just make women feel bad about their own bodies and may even damage their bond with their new baby (Krisjanous, Richard, & Gazley, 2014). Instead of accepting this idea, women can challenge the logic of the underlying cultural assumptions: why must a body that is different than before not look different from before?

As science has shown, a lot of so-called body positive content may actually have a negative impact on body image. The bottom line is that we have the power to build healthier body image by deciding if it’s in our best interest to participate in influencer culture. Just as importantly, our self-concept — our sense of what we are like in terms of our attitudes, beliefs, and personal and physical characteristics — can be centered on healthier and more fulfilling characteristics than our appearance.

Where do we go from here?

1. Take stock of the influencers that you follow and note how each one makes you think, feel, and behave. Are they a positive force in your life or do they make you feel anxious or worse about yourself? Has your behavior changed in a positive way as a result of following them? Are these influencers qualified to make the claims that they are making and are the claims accepted by the scientific community? Is this a valuable use of time or do you often feel like you are “doomscrolling?” The answers will differ for each woman. Once you’ve gone through this checklist, continue to follow or unfollow accordingly!

2. Limit the mental space given to social media and celebrity influencers. We know that the lives of the wealthy, famous, and filtered are fundamentally different from our own. But social media has made the everyday lives of influencers accessible, and we sometimes find ourselves overly invested in their behaviors. What’s the harm? A recent meta-analysis showed that media fuels women’s and girls’ body image concerns (Brown & Tiggemann, 2022) and that this is especially true for those who are interested in influencers’ lives. This behavior is associated with increased body concerns, poorer body image, and disordered views about eating. Are there certain influencers that you follow a little too closely? If you feel a desire to follow them, consider setting concrete time limits for doing so and limit the amount of discussion centered on their lives. If you are raising a daughter, this is also protective for her.

3. Develop other aspects of your “self.” Consider how many of the influencers that you follow focus on non-appearance-oriented content. Challenge yourself to follow those who engage in activities that align with your interests: art, science, cooking, architecture, athletics, home improvement, and so on. The goal is to expand the mental space allotted to other aspects of yourself. If you have a daughter, it’s a great idea to involve her and maybe even develop some new interests together.

Daily, women are offered a lot of information about our bodies that claims to be in our best interests. Whether that information is actually in our own personal best interests is something only we can determine, with guidance from science. Getting savvy about our social influences is one way for women to build healthier body image.

More from Janet Boseovski, Ph.D., and Ashleigh Gallagher, Ph.D.
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