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The Pressures of Femininity: Social Media & Body Image

Written by Millie Braund

Photography by Lily Newman

It’s no breaking news that social media has had a huge effect on young women for some time. But, as the technology world continues to boom, the issue is still extremely present, with more and more social apps being developed and rising in demand, such as the surge of dating apps and the more recently created TikTok.

Despite ‘OG’ platforms like Facebook and Instagram continuing to be widely used following 10-20 years now, there is still a staggering, and increasing, number of women negatively affected by them. This is an ongoing problem, with ongoing debates over whether Instagram should remove ‘likes’ on posts – but how far do changes like this solve the problem?

Social media is effectively taking over the world, with more and more young girls turning to apps over hobbies to fill their spare time. Not only are they communicating with friends, but are being exposed to thousands of ‘influencers’ and celebrities on a daily basis, with lives seemingly more ‘perfect’ than their own.

A recent study by Girlguiding UK found that over a third of girls as young as eleven feel as though the pressures of comparing their lives to others is one of their biggest concerns about using the internet and social media; it is sad girls this young feel as though the internet is negatively affecting their wellbeing and day-to-day lives.

With the ever-increasing popularity of social media, it is important to highlight and understand the correlations between these apps and women’s mental and physical health; body dissatisfaction and overall feelings of self-loathing have become the standard amongst young women, specifically of college and university age – as studies have found.

Throughout our greater history, though, being underweight has been viewed as a sign of poverty, whilst being ‘fat’ was admired as a sign of wealth and prosperity. So, when did this change?

As various modes of media have been invented and become mainstream, from magazines and billboards to TV and movies, more unrealistic, often sexualised standards for women have been portrayed; with an increase in frequency came the idealization of these unnatural, highly edited presentations, with the world coming to view them as the ‘norm’.

The constant rendering of this ideal standard in all types of media can lead women to processes of internalisation and self-objectification which can, arguably, cause underlying body dissatisfaction issues.

A recent review of 20 studies on the effects of Facebook use, for example, found that increased engagement with the app was related to behaviours such as body surveillance, shape concerns and disordered eating. It also found that image-related activities, such as posting on or scrolling through Instagram, were particularly problematic in relation to negative, self-loathing thoughts.

It’s not just viewing ‘perfect’ lifestyles that can affect women, though. The frequency, even in this day and age, of gossip sites, online/print magazines and ‘troll’ social accounts outwardly commenting on celebrity weight gain or bad makeup decisions just goes to show the hatred in a large portion of society (still) for anything that tiptoes out of the norms, or desired images, we have become accustomed to.

As recently as last month, the public were ‘trolling’ images of Molly Mae, who looked beautiful, for appearing ‘lardy’ in a swimsuit on holiday. Molly Mae addressed the trolls by commenting on her current ‘strict diet’ and exercise routine to return to her Love Island body – something she shouldn’t feel as though she has to disclose.

It’s not only the images and expectations, but women are exposed to a whole, largely unrestricted, world of negative reviewers of the things they post. This can lead women to over evaluate their images, feeling as though they need to edit themselves to fit society’s views of ‘beautiful’.

Now, more than ever, women are constantly reminded of these expectations and Molly Mae, even though perfectly content and not in any risk for her health, is a perfect example of society’s outdated reactions to change, and the desperate need for a social revolution.

In the age of social media and ‘influencers’, these presentations are more easily accessible for younger audiences than ever before. The ease of downloading editing apps, such as Facetune and Photoshop, to dramatically alter our bodies and faces can have extremely negative impacts, portraying a new type of ‘ideal’ of someone who is not entirely real. Not only this, but influencers and celebrities take money to promote potentially dangerous products, influencing their audience, who can be as young as thirteen, to follow in their footsteps.

It was only in 2019 that social media apps finally began to put restrictions on influencers and advertising. Before then, some with as many as 150M+ followers, such as the Kardashians, Cardi B and Iggy Azalea, were freely advertising diet teas, shakes and gummies almost daily. Before restrictions, they weren’t even required to disclose the fact that they were ads, on top of the fact they had likely never tried them before.

When young, impressionable women are exposed to so many images of ‘perfection’, with their favourite influences openly endorsing products they’ve likely never tried, it can develop a self-destructive and loathing mindset.

So, if social media is so ‘bad’, what can we do?

These standards for women have been perpetuated through the variety of social media distribution models currently available, and so it seems easier to set norms for appearance in today’s society. So, spread body positivity and awareness of the negative effects of social media!

There are some truly inspiring ‘influencers’ who aim to fight against the outdated and unrealistic portrayals of women. There are many ways to curate your social feeds to provide more positive outlooks to make you feel better, rather than worse, about yourself. 

Stop engaging with things you think are going to ‘motivate’ you, but really get you feeling down about yourself (I am a victim of this myself). Start following inspirational hashtags and users – a few of my favourites include Chessie King, Sierra Schultzzie, and Jenny Gaither who founded Movemeant Foundation, fitness focused on boosting self-worth rather than looking thin.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, put your phone down, take a much-needed break from technology and spend the time engaging with people and activities that have nothing to do with comparing yourself or your appearance. Every body is beautiful, and you deserve to feel that way. 

Over 3.7 billion people, almost 50% of the world’s population, use Instagram and Facebook alone per month. This is a staggering amount and more needs to be done to protect the younger generation as they are introduced to the potentially harmful world of social media. I can only hope we use our social platforms to look to more self-loving, inspirational women rather than fad diets and unrealistic, sexualised presentations of women.

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