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Why Body-Positive Social Media May Be Good for You

A new experiment puts body-positive social media to the test.

Key points

  • Viewing body-positive social media can increase body satisfaction.
  • Body-positive social media with captions that reinforce the body-positive movement may be especially beneficial.
  • People may experience the benefits of body-positive social media regardless of their pre-existing ideas about beauty.
 Jennifer Enujiugha/Pexels
Source: Jennifer Enujiugha/Pexels

Social media has been criticized for presenting a distorted reality when it comes to beauty (and many other things). Namely, celebrities, models, actors, and other “influencers” on social media often portray societal beauty ideals, which idolize thinness and leanness, muscle tone and muscularity, youth, and being able-bodied. Even people we know “in real life” typically post their “highlight reels,” and these images are often carefully selected and edited with filters or other adjustments. Exposure to these types of idealized images has been shown to cause body dissatisfaction and other aspects of negative body image, as well as disordered eating.

In recent years, the body-positive movement has become increasingly visible on social media, as an “antidote” to beauty-ideal imagery and its negative consequences. Broadly speaking, body positivity involves an overall respect and appreciation for one’s body, regardless of whether it meets societal beauty ideals for how a body “should” look and function. Body-positive content on social media typically portrays non-sexualized and “enhancement-free” images of people with diverse bodies, in terms of characteristics such as body shape and size, physical ability, skin color, and gender identity. These images are often accompanied by captions that promote body positivity (e.g., “All bodies are worthy of respect.”), facets of social justice (e.g., reducing stigma toward transgender individuals), and stories of resilience (e.g., recovery from an eating disorder).

In a new experiment, researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast (Australia) investigated whether body-positive social media could cause improvements in people’s body image, and, if so, what factors might explain who benefits most.

Testing the Effects of Body-Positive Social Media

The experiment involved 233 participants who identified as women and were between 18 and 30 years old. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • Group 1: the body-positive group, who viewed a series of Instagram images reflecting the body-positive movement.
  • Group 2: the body-positive group with captions, who viewed the same Instagram images, but with captions and hashtags underneath.
  • Group 3: the control group, who viewed a series of Instagram images containing only cityscapes, without people and without captions.

Group 2 was included to test the distinction between viewing body-positive social media with and without captions, and Group 3 was included to ensure that any effects of the study were due to the body-positive media, and not to other features of taking part in the experiment. This is akin to a “placebo” in medical trials.

Before and after viewing their respective series of Instagram images, all participants filled in questionnaires to measure their current body image and mood.

The key results of this experiment are the following:

  1. All participants experienced improvements in body appreciation (a key facet of positive body image) and positive mood. This is interesting, considering that we may not have expected improvements in Group 3, who viewed cityscapes. Given that the experiment took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers theorized that viewing cityscapes may have induced positive feelings related to thoughts of being able to travel again.
  2. Perhaps most importantly, participants who viewed body-positive social media — both with and without captions — experienced improvements in body satisfaction. The effects on body satisfaction were slightly stronger for the body-positive media with captions, suggesting that messages reinforcing the ideals of the body-positive movement may pack a “double dose” of positive impact.
  3. The effects of body-positive social media did not differ based on women’s pre-existing ideas about beauty. The researchers expected that the impact of body-positive social media would be stronger for women who already agreed with aspects of the body-positive movement, such as the notion that all bodies are beautiful and worthy of respect. Instead, all women benefited from the body-positive social media, regardless of their endorsement of broader conceptualizations of beauty.

The Take-Home Message

The current experiment adds to a growing body of science showing that body-positive media can have a positive impact on body image and other aspects of well-being. Body-positive social media that is accompanied by captions promoting the ideals of the body-positive movement may be especially beneficial. It is promising that the effects of body-positive social media on body satisfaction in this experiment held for all women, regardless of their pre-existing ideas about beauty. This means that body-positive social media can potentially have a positive impact on a greater number of people. More broadly, research shows that when people experience positive body image, they treat their bodies and themselves with more care and compassion and experience more physical and psychological well-being. Interestingly, they are also more likely to promote positive body image among others.

It should be noted that the present experiment was limited in terms of its participants, who were young and comprised cis-gender women only. The researchers acknowledge that an important next step is to investigate the impact of body-positive social media on people with diverse characteristics — for example, in terms of age and gender orientation.


Manning, T. M., & Mulgrew, K. E. (2022). Broad conceptualisations of beauty do not moderate women’s responses to body positive content on Instagram. Body Image, 40, 12–18.

de Valle, M. K., Gallego-García, M., Williamson, P., & Wade, T. D. (2021). Social media, body image, and the question of causation: Meta-analyses of experimental and longitudinal evidence. Body Image, 39, 276–292.

Holland, G., & Tiggemann, M. (2016). A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body Image, 17, 100–110.

Tylka, T. L., & Wood-Barcalow, N. L. (2015a). What is and what is not positive body image? Conceptual foundations and construct definition. Body Image, 14, 118–129.

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