Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
Whenever you’re doing one of your daily tasks and have a free hand, there’s a good chance that you’ll pull out your phone, open Instagram or Facebook, and start scrolling. If you’re trying to get healthy, you might be looking for some ‘fitspiration’ in your feed. But the question is–is this habit really helping you? Will looking for ‘fitspiration’ motivate you to make healthier choices? Scientists have started examining the effects of social media on body image, and it could be making you feel worse about your body.
Social media is a fairly new phenomenon, and it’s still not clear how our interactions on the various platforms will affect us in the long-term. While there are great benefits to being more connected with others, it can potentially lead to a ‘preoccupation and focus on physical appearance.’ Although this can particularly affect women, who tend to post more frequently than men, data has shown that for both men and women, social media use can lead to greater self objectification and lower self esteem. There even appears to be an emerging correlation between unhealthy social media use and eating disorders, although more research is needed to prove the connection.
Of course, one of the strengths of social media is the ability to create a community around a topic or activity. Although you would think that a community focused around living a healthy lifestyle would be helpful, it’s been found that accounts featuring ‘fitspiration’ content are associated with ‘less body satisfaction’ and a focus on appearance instead of health for both men and women. These accounts tend to feature people with a fit and idealized body looking fabulous and exercising (or simply posing as if they are exercising!).
The effects of these ‘fitspiration’ accounts on your psyche also depend on whose images you are viewing. If you are looking at pictures of family and close friends, you have a fuller picture of their lives and know that there is more than the filtered version of their bodies and experiences–making it easier to cut yourself some slack when you don’t quite measure up. But when seeing the pictures of celebrities and people in your outer circle, you’re often just seeing the perfect parts, and it’s easy to forget how very imperfect their lives may be when the camera is turned off.
There is a movement on Instagram called ‘Instagram vs Reality.’ A user will post an idealized version of a photo–perfectly positioned, filtered, and photoshopped–contrasted with a ‘real’ photo so users can see the difference. The comparison is often amusing but can serve a wakeup call to the fact that idealized photos are often not reality. There is also a movement towards body positivity–accounts and posts that promote embracing your body and all of its so-called imperfections. Although there are a lot of healthy messages posted by these accounts and studies have found that viewing these posts can lead to more positive body appreciation, there still tends to be an increase in overall self-objectification.
So if we don’t want to go through our day feeling low or less-than perfect, what’s the game plan? For many, the only real answer is to remove, unfollow, or be discerning. For anyone struggling with body image sensitivities, it’s so important to make sure that your feed reflects positive messages–whether that’s following accounts that are not focused around the body or unfollowing accounts of celebrities marketing themselves or selling products using their bodies. Try not to compare yourself to others, and don’t speak negatively about your body. And most importantly: make sure to get off social media once in a while and see life through the lens of the real world with all of its shapes, colors, and sizes!