The new phenomenon of body positive messages on Instagram
Over the last decade, it has been proven that media play a significant role in influencing the perceived social and cultural norms of appearance and beauty standards (Grabe et al., 2008). The emergence of new media gave people the opportunity to express their identity in new ways because users can create their own content and, in this way, participate in the social atmosphere online. These online platforms are also very important in the construction of the ideal appearance as users are constantly exposed to pictures of thin models and influencers and can ‘judge’ other people’s appearance (Syme 2015). A lot of research has been conducted on the connection between body ideals on social media and the consequences for the body image of young women. The greatest bulk of literature shows that these beauty standards on social media lead to low body satisfaction and sometimes even to depressive feelings and disordered eating (Grabe et al, 2008; Harper & Tiggemann, 2008; Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat, & Anschütz, 2018).
I will focus on the platform Instagram, which is a photo and video-based social networking site with 1 000 000 000 monthly active users in June 2018 (Statista, 2018), who share an average of 95 million photos and videos per day. As users are the creators of the content on Instagram, it is an important platform to cultivate awareness, online communities and social change on a global level (Kasana, 2014). In this paper, I aim to examine the upcoming trend of body positive messages on Instagram, which can be described as “messages that seek to challenge dominant societal appearance ideas and promote acceptance and appreciation of all bodies and appearances” (Cohen et al. 2019, p 47).
This topic is important because self-representations and user-generated content on social media reflect what we identify with as a society and what people value. In addition, it is important to shift the focus of research to body positive messages so that the consequences of this new trend become clear.
First, I will discuss the most important theories related to beauty ideals and the influence on body image. After that, I will give a short overview of the influence of thin and fitspiration messages on social media. Then, I will explore the rise of body positive messages and discuss the first research results on the new phenomenon in light of the Social Comparison Theory of Festinger (1954). Some critical points and limitations will conclude this brief article.
Theories and thin ideals
I chose to discuss the phenomenon of body positivity on Instagram within the light of the Social Comparison Theory of Festinger (1954) because this theory has often been linked to comparisons of appearance on media before. This theory explains that people look for physical standards to be able to do self-evaluation. In the context of media, these standards could be embodied by influencers, celebrities but also by peers. If people feel like they differ a lot from the standards, they encounter a discrepancy between their actual self and their ideal self.
Most of the research on ideals or standards portrayed in the media focused on thin-ideal and fitspiration messages, which reflect sexual objectification, glorification of the thin or fit ideal, eating- and weight-related guilt-inducing messages and fat stigmatization (Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2016). Several studies on media exposure have confirmed that adolescent girls often compare themselves to these thin-ideals for their self-evaluation. As a result of the portrayed ideals, they discover a discrepancy between their own body and that of the thin or fit ideal, which leads to a negative feeling or even body dissatisfaction (Hendrickse, Secharan, & Clayton, 2016).
In addition, previous research also explored Instagram content in relation to these ideals. Brown and Tiggemann (2016) proved in an experiment that exposure to celebrities and peers’ photos indirectly predicts a more negative state of mind and body dissatisfaction with social comparison as a mediator. Furthermore, in the study of Russell et al. (2017), women engaged in greater social comparisons when viewing their ideal body type (i.e., thin models) compared to average and plus size models.
It is also worth to mention the objectification theory of Frederickson and Roberts (1997) because previous research also used this theory to explain the relationship between self-objectification and body positive ideals, which will be explained later on. This theory explains that women are socialized to view their own bodies as objects because of media’s sexual objectification of them (Frederickson, & Roberts, 1997). Studies have shown that Instagram use is related to greater self-objectification (Cohen et al., 2019, Ward, 2016). In the study of Fardouly, Willburger and Vartanian (2018) this relationship was also mediated by internalization and social comparisons to celebrities.
Body positive messages
As mentioned before, with the emergence of new media, people have the opportunity to not only consume media but create content themselves and thus participate in the online public sphere. In this way, they also have more control over what is displayed and what is discussed. Social media can speed up the process of mobilization and help marginalized groups of people to claim a voice (Chamberlain, 2017, pp. 4, 107-108). This kind of participating is also seen with the increasing popularity of body positive messages on Instagram. The audience on Instagram does not always agree with the unrealistic body standards that are shown by the media and thus start to act against them.
When I performed a search on Instagram for the #bodypositive, 11.189.448 posts were generated (Instagram, October 2019), which is already a lot more than the search of Cohen et al. (2019) in June 2018, as they generated 6.064.145 posts. But, this body positive movement on Instagram didn’t come out of nowhere. Body positivity has its roots in the fat acceptance movement, which was a feminist movement that began during second-wave feminism in the late 1960s in the United States that was already tackling issues of body politics and discrimination against heavy people (Cwynar-Horta, 2016). In contrast with the fat acceptance movement, the body positive movement does not only focus on heavier people. It strives for accepting all bodies as they are and gives the message that you don’t have to fit in a certain model in order to be beautiful or accepted.
The content analysis of Cohen et al. (2019), showed that the body positive posts on Instagram consist of quotes, captions, images of women displaying their bodies and messages that are about loving your own body and that all body types are beautiful. Furthermore, they contain a range of larger and different body types of mostly women in their 20’s, of which just over two thirds of bodies meet overweight or obese BMI criteria. Also, almost half of the images in body positive posts show attributes that are in contrast with the beauty standards such as cellulite, stretch marks, unshaved armpits, rolls, acne (Cohen et al., 2019). The aim of these posts is to increase the visibility and normalization of underrepresented bodies in the media and thus reject the narrowed ideals that media produce now in order to promote self-acceptance (Cwynar-Horta, 2016).
In the following, I will discuss the first research results of body positive messages on body image. In the study of Swami et al. (2017), a positive body image was linked to greater emotional, social, and psychological well-being. Also, another study found that positive body image was positively associated with health-seeking behaviors, intuitive eating and physical activity (Andrew et al., 2016). It has even been found that body appreciation may play a protective role against the negative impacts of media use (Andrew et al., 2015; Halliwell, 2013). This means that body appreciation seems to reduce women’s vulnerability to body dissatisfaction. In addition, the first experimental study of Cohen et al. (2019) showed that body positive content on Instagram can improve positive mood, body satisfaction and body appreciation. They also found that women reported more appearance related statements after viewing thin-ideal and body positive posts in comparison to neutral appearance posts.
Furthermore, previous correlational research found that both body criticism and compliments are associated with higher levels of self-objectification (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). This might suggest that both positive and negative focus on appearance might be correlated with more self-objectification. However, in the experiment of Cohen et al. (2019), it was also shown that women who viewed body-positive posts made more positive statements about their appearance than the women who viewed thin-ideal posts. Thus, it might be possible for women to self-objectify and still be happy with their appearance (Cohen et al., 2019). Moreover, a qualitative study showed that women report that publishing and looking at body positive posts has an empowering effect for them in terms of self-esteem, identity and body image. And that they even sense it stronger when receiving positive feedback after posting a body positive picture (Alentola, 2017).
As we put these results in the light of the comparison theory of Festinger, we could assume that these body positive messages might thus give a more diverse picture of what ‘normal’ women look like and in this way have more positive influences. When women start comparing themselves to this diverse picture; they might experience a smaller discrepancy between their bodies and the bodies presented on Instagram which may lead to more body satisfaction, positive mood, etc. Of course, these are just first assumptions so there needs to be further research on this link in order to reach reliable conclusions.
Despite these positive results of the body positive messages, some studies also mention negative aspects of them. First of all, a growing number of the body positive accounts on Instagram are commodified, which means that users or influencers are paid by corporations to promote commercial products with their body positive posts (Cwynar-Horta, 2016). Some of them even use the body positive hashtags for promoting dieting-related messages and products with the argumentation that they became body positive after losing weight. In addition, there is no account that checks whether the body positive messages actually promote what they intend (Cohen et al., 2019.) Another important issue is that although there are more body types displayed in the body positive messages, they rarely include women of color, disabled women or Muslim women (Alentola, 2017; Webb et al., 2017).
To sum up, it can be stated that body positive messages are becoming increasingly popular on social media, especially on the platform Instagram. The first studies on this phenomenon give the impression that body positive posts on Instagram can lead to more positive outcomes than thin and fitspiration posts (Andrew et al., 2015; Cohen et al., 2019; Halliwell, 2013). In the light of the Social Comparison Theory of Festinger (1954), the assumption can be made that when people see more body types and body positive messages, they will evaluate themselves better when comparing themselves to these posts than when they see mostly slim and fit bodies.
However, the social comparison theory has not been directly examined in relation to the body positive messages on Instagram, therefore I can only make assumptions about how they can relate to each other. Besides that, we have to keep in mind that corporations might pay users to promote products for dieting while using body positive hashtags. As a result, as Cwynar-Horta (2016) claims, “a contradiction emerges as the body positive activists are brought back into the very capitalist system of consumer culture that they originally rejected” (p. 44). Finally, according to Caldeira and De Ridder (2017), “there is a need to remain critical about the body positive movement, recognizing how even overtly feminist efforts can contribute towards a continued emphasis on fashion and beauty as essential to femininity” (p. 333).
There are also some other limitations to this approach. Even though there has been a lot written on the body positive movement on social media and online magazines, the amount of research about the topic is still very limited. Most of the studies conducted on the topic are only correlational and thus are unable to give a conclusion on the causality of the found relations (Alentola, 2017). Hence, it can be concluded that further research should include more experimental methods and examine the Social Comparison Theory of Festinger (1954) in direct relation with the body positive movement on social media.
Tille Geerkens is a student in communication sciences at the university of KU Leuven and will begin her studies for a Master’s degree in 2020. Tille is also a feminist who tries to actively post and tweet on feminist issues on social media. Tille has a strong interest in how media ideals influence the body perception of women.
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