Rachel Simmons, “How Social Media is a Toxic Mirror,” Time Magazine, Aug 19, 2016. Access here.
Simmons examines how a relatively-new kind of media effects and relays messages about women’s bodies. She points out that “we’ve long understood that movies, magazines, and television damage teens’ body image by enforcing a ‘thin ideal’” but that “less known is the impact of social media on body confidence.” While parents are concerned about social media for reasons like cyberbullying, and the danger of reckless anonymity, they should also be concerned about the ways in which social media has “become a toxic mirror.”
Earlier this year, psychologists found robust cross-cultural evidence linking social media use to body image concerns, dieting, body surveillance, a drive for thinness and self-objectification in adolescents. While that doesn’t necessarily mean social media causes these problems, there is a strong association between them.
Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all visually oriented. They “allow teens to earn approval for their appearance and compare themselves to others.” By nature they are competitive and comparative as young women try to win “likes” through their images (which is more common than written or other content). In this way, social media is a reinforcer of the long-prevalent message that appearance is ultimately most important and that it is the key to success and “likes”. Through social media, teenagers also practice making quick, appearance-oriented judgments. They scroll quickly through the content and generally pay attention to the most visually-attractive content. They determine whether others’ images or content are worthy of their “likes,” and a quantitative number to symbolize social approval makes it easy to compare oneself with others. According to researchers, “the most vulnerable users…are the ones who spend most of their time posting, commenting on and comparing themselves to photos. One study found that female college students who did this on Facebook were more likely to link their self-worth to their looks.”
New technology makes photo editing available not just for advertisers, but for virtually everyone who wants to enhance their “selfie.” “Perhaps what social media has done is let anyone enter the beauty pageant. Teens can cover up pimples, whiten teeth and even airbrush with the swipe of a finger, curating their own image to become prettier, thinner and hotter.”
This again sends another body-image message of the twentieth century: “if I spend more time and really work at it, I can improve at being beautiful.” Women and girls embrace social media with this “illusion of control” that they will be more successful and more powerful if they can manipulate images of themselves. One woman said: “I don’t get to choose how I’m going to leave my apartment today. If I could, my body would look different. But I can choose which picture makes my arms look thinner.” Trends have arisen on social media that pointed out and popularized specific body traits (whether authentic or fabricated) such as the “thigh gap” and “thigh brows.”
However, according to Simmons, not much has changed in regards to what women view as “ideal” in terms of body-image. Therefore, social media by and large alters these ideals only minimally but it makes ideals seem even more prevalent. It is no longer just rich, famous, inaccessible celebrities who can take “flawless” pictures, but so can the girl across the street. “What teens share online is dwarfed by what they consumer.” Before the internet, “you had to hoof it to the grocery store to find a magazine with celebrity bodies…Now the pictures are as endless as they are available.”
Trends online influence perspectives of health and body-image on social media. The rise of the “wellness” trend online has created fitness celebrities on social media. Millions of followers idealize their diet and exercise, but “increasingly, the drive for ‘wellness’ and ‘clean eating’ has become stealthy cover for more dieting and deprivation.” According to the article, this year an analysis of 50 “fitspiration” websites were deemed “indistinguishable, at times, from pro-anorexia (pro-ana) or ‘thinspiration’ websites. Both contained strong language inducing guilt about weight or the body, and promoted dieting, restraint and fat and weight stigmatization.”
This video confirms the trends and statistics talked about in Simmons’ article, but embraces it to encourage viewers to conform to beauty standards portrayed in social media by getting cosmetic surgery. “People are more aware of how they’re being portrayed…and therefore taken greater measures to change that.”
Although it seems some mainstream media have made conscious efforts to be more “body positive,” it is evident that society is still trying to portray an “unreal” image via social media. This outlet gives evidence to previous claims that society has been preoccupied with female appearance and reinforces beauty expectations as the standard for social acceptance. While “many teens are media-literate about movies and magazines,” it is less clear is how social media literate they are. By emphasizing the desirability of a strong social-media presence and following, society continues to reinforce messages to women that suggest that they can only have as much success as they have beauty.