With the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, there has sadly been an increase in issues surrounding confidence and happiness. Social networks are typically a way for us to show off the highlights of our lives, like when we’re on holiday or have gotten dolled up for a night out with our friends. When we’re feeling sad, bored, or unfulfilled, the posts are usually fewer, or throwbacks are shared until there’s something we feel is worth uploading for the world to see.
Because of this, everyone else’s life may look perfect – even when it isn’t. This can lead us to feel discontent with our own lives.
One major area of our lives that is affected heavily by social media is how we feel about our body and appearance. A quick look on Instagram hashtags shows 1.3 million #bodyconfidence tags and 14.5 million #bodypositive tags as users try to take back control over feeling good about their pictures.
The state of body confidence
It’s not new information that media can have damaging effects on our self-esteem. So many of us have learnt to feel that way through television and magazine covers from a young age. At one point, we were all blissfully unaware of how we looked as children, rocking that second-skin swimsuit without a care in the world. Over time, this changed, and we became aware of things by comparing ourselves to others. This comparison has simply been made much more accessible at our fingertips.
Clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew commented: “I think what social media has done is make everyone accessible for comparison…In the past, people might have just envied their neighbours, but now we can compare ourselves with everyone across the world.”
Although of course, social media isn’t all bad. We’re connected with a diverse group of people from across the world, exposed to different cultures and ways of the world. However, we’re also exposed to how everybody else looks at their best. It’s hard to ignore that most people are striving for an unrealistic beauty standard, whether this is through editing their pictures or changing their lifestyle.
How content we are with our bodies
We decided to explore the state of body confidence in 2020; a strange year which has kept us locked indoors with little to do but trawl through social media feeds. We sent out a survey which got 459 answers, looking into body confidence and social media in men and women.
Unsurprisingly, the data reports that men aged 18–24 and women aged 25–34 are the least confident. It’s likely that Generation Z and millennials are feeling the least confident due to growing up with the heavy use of social media and have probably been victims of body comparison and feeling negative about themselves as a result. Younger people certainly feel the pressures of looking attractive and fitting the aesthetic trends at the time the most.
When respondents were asked if they wanted to change, 97% of women and 100% of men aged 18–24 answered yes. Often, the discussion has centred around unrealistic body expectations for women from the male perspective, putting pressure on women to look a certain way. However, this data is highlighting an interesting and often overlooked point – men appear to have less confidence than women about their body image. Similarly, a 2016 survey conducted by the BBC found that 55% of boys between the age of eight and 18 said they’d change their diet to improve their body image.
Across all genders, the four main sources creating pressure and body dissatisfaction were friends (68%), social media (57%), advertising (53%) and celebrities (49%).
Older age groups appeared to be the most content with their body, likely as a result of less use of social media platforms like Instagram and less content targeted at their age groups.
We asked respondents what they wanted to change about their bodies. The most common responses from young women were about losing weight, having bigger hips, bums, and breasts, becoming more toned, having better skin, changing their nose, and having thicker hair. Older women were more bothered about losing weight and becoming more toned. For men, there was a mixture of answers around gaining and losing weight, having bigger muscles, more facial hair, and being taller.
When asked if respondents worried about other people’s opinions, themes across genders were almost identical – 72% of women and 75% of men answered yes.
From the data, it seems that social media impacts the body confidence of both genders, with 85% of women and 42% of men agreeing. 18–24-year olds were the most impacted compared to 25–34-year-old men.
The main reasons respondents believed were the root cause of negativity were Instagram, edited photos from influencers, lack of body type variation shown in marketing, bullying online, magazines, a lack of diversity and inclusion.
Andrew commented: “We all know that images can be filtered, that people are presenting the very best take on their lives.
“What I notice is that most of us can intellectualise what we see on social media platforms – we know that these images and narratives that are presented aren’t real, we can talk about it and rationalise it – but on an emotional level, it’s still pushing buttons. If those images or narratives tap into what we aspire to, but what we don’t have, then it becomes very powerful.”
When asked if respondents edit their photos, 56% of women answered no, 32% sometimes, and 21% said yes. 92% of men answered no and 8% yes. These figures are perhaps lower than anticipated, particularly as edited Instagram photos were cited as one of the main causes of feelings of negativity. However, it is possible that users who are discontent with their appearance don’t edit their photos in order to push back against societal expectations, attempting to make unedited the photos the norm which can be extremely encouraging and positive.
Changing the norm
With online content being the main culprit, be it influencers and celebrities or brands advertising their products, we’re constantly bombarded with and surrounded by beauty ideals. Although we might acknowledge that what we see online isn’t always real, it can trigger an emotional or subconscious response, causing us to become unhappy with how we feel. After all, we carry our phones around with us everywhere, waking up to it first thing on a morning to putting it down next to us on a night before drifting off to sleep.
It is up to celebrities and brands to take responsibility for creating this new and distorted norm that is affecting the lives of many people. Brands should be inclusive to evolve what is the norm – when attractive and slim white girls are the only body type used across marketing, we see anything else as undesirable.
Tanning water brand, Isle of Paradise, have adopted self-love, inclusivity, and body positivity as their ethos since the beginning of the brand’s launch. Building a brand that we can get behind helps encourage other brands to follow suit when they see the success this has both for the business and how it makes their consumers feel. Isle of Paradise was the very first self-tanning brand to include plus-size models in their debut campaign. The founder, Jules Von Hep, posts continual positive messages of self-love and acceptance to his Instagram, enforcing a positive message to online users.
We hope that celebrities and influencers alike follow the same message. Many in the public eye have been criticised for promoting weight loss and appetite suppressant products, like lollipops, tea, and gummies. This has been hit back by users for being toxic and discouraging body positivity, particularly when those posting about the products have had surgery, expensive personal trainers, and nutritionists at hand. While Instagram has responded to the criticism by banning these ads for users 18 and under, this is still affecting others who are older.
The significant influence that Instagram influencers and celebrities have on our lives reminds us that the people who are responsible for fighting back against the toxic culture are in the public eye. Getting rid of these toxic practices doesn’t end at Instagram, but with those who are perpetuating these unrealistic beauty standards.