The “Cost of Beauty”, a short video recently released by a global beauty brand Dove, highlights the detrimental effects of social media on the body image and self-esteem of young women. He is part of a wider campaign which raises awareness of the devastating effects of social media on the mental and physical health of young women.
It is clear that social media can negatively affect women’s relationship with their bodies, but our recent search revealed a more complex and nuanced picture.
More … than a decade of research showed that unrealistic beauty standards, the rise of “fitspiration”, body shaming and online gender-based violence, have a significant impact on young women.
That said, social media users are not naive about the toxic beauty ideals promoted on digital platforms.
Our research revealed that women were highly aware of the risks and vulnerabilities associated with using social media. And women were developing online habits and communities to counter these negative elements.
We focused on the emergence of “#fitspo” (short for “fitspiration”) content – think a waving six-pack, a sweaty sports bra and a smiley face in the middle of a workout.
Although apparently positive for their health, one of the consequences of the suction crisis is that women are now under pressure to be both slim and fit. Increasingly, many women and girls actively avoid these online spaces, while others find support, inspiration and even care in these online communities.
The potential of Instagram as a positive space
In our work with exercising women who use Instagram, we found many everyday examples of how they thoughtfully navigate online spaces to reduce risk and minimize harm to themselves and to others.
For example, when faced with unrealistic body standards, women made active choices to strategically manage their social media worlds by blocking, unfollowing – also known as “size” – content that they found unhealthy or unrelated. They have also increasingly blocked and reported followers who offer unsolicited advice and negative or sexualized comments.
To challenge the pressures that enhanced images can bring, many women have chosen to represent their “real”, “raw” and imperfect bodies without editing stretch marks or body fat. Some women promoted this practice using hashtags like #filterfreefriday or #noedit.
Women also made choices about how they interacted with other agencies online. Body shaming is commonplace on social media. But in many exercise communities, women avoided posting comments that might cause other women to feel embarrassed or negative about their bodies.
Commenting on someone’s image could be perceived as contributing to body monitoring. SO, participants in our research explained that they focused on how women looked strong or confident, or celebrated their efforts and accomplishments in a sport. Knowing what it feels like to have your body judged online has inspired women to avoid judging others.
The power of connection
Social connection was also an important feature for women and girls using social media.
We found that for many women, their motivations for sharing images of themselves online weren’t just to “show off” their bodies or promote themselves. Instead, they were trying to create safe online communities to seek validation and support. Posting photos of their unfiltered bodies pursuing their athletic and fitness goals was one of the ways they built a collective online presence.
Social media was also important for women promote their communities, relationships and skills offline, not just how they looked. It was particularly important during the pandemicwith fitness professionals using digital technologies to support their movement communities during challenging times.
It is important to note that women from various social, cultural and religious backgrounds have been exposed to both the same and different risks (such as racist and sexist trolling or body shame) when using social media.
Researchers have identified ways Muslim sportswomen ran such riskscarefully considering gender, religion and culture in managing their accounts, audiences, and taking the time to consider the types of images and text they share.
Researchers in Türkiye also revealed the potential of these images to challenge racialized and patriarchal norms and expectations of women’s bodies in sport and fitness.
Minimize the harm of social media
Whether we like it or not, posting about our bodies online and in public makes us vulnerable.
Our findings suggest that we need other ways of thinking about women’s and girls’ use of social media, where the risks and vulnerabilities of social media use become the basis for a more nuanced way of understand how participation in social media can affect our lives.
Paying attention to women’s efforts to minimize harm through their own daily actions on social media is an important first step toward the social media dating culture that represents wider impacts of what we publishbased on care, consideration and respect.