tape measure around a fitting mannequin

What’s the Skinny?

Is there such a thing as an “ideal” body?

Back in 2020, the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee posted an online social media study investigating the state of people’s body image in the United Kingdom. Of the 7878 participants, 65% of those under 18 and 45% of adults said they believed in an “ideal body.” 

Even more disturbing, 61% of adults and 66% of under 18s feel negative or very negative about their body image most of the time.

Could the high levels of negative body image be connected to this? 57% of adults in the study reported “rarely” or “never” seeing themselves or people who look like them reflected in the media. And for many, that means social media.

According to internal research obtained by the Wall Street Journal, more than 40% of teen Instagram users in the U.K. and U.S. said they started feeling unattractive when they began using the app. The research showed, as teens scroll through their feeds on the Facebook-owned app, they consume a steady stream of highly curated lifestyle and beauty shots.

An internal Facebook study showed social comparison is worse on Instagram than Facebook because IG content is much more focused more on body and lifestyle.

Health and fitness social media accounts have been shown to increase body dissatisfaction at least in part because creators promote specific lifestyles in order to reach particular weight or fitness goals.

In a 2017 study published in the U.K., 160 female undergrads viewed IG posts hashtagged with #fitspo, self-compassion quotes, a combination of both, or appearance-neutral. Those who viewed only #fitspo demonstrated poorer body image and body satisfaction than those who viewed a combination or just self-compassion posts.

According to a different study published in the journal Body Image in 2016, 45% of “fitspiration” images included figures posed to appear thinner or smaller than reality (e.g., positioning camera above or moving hips to minimize body).

The researchers suggest that these hashtags, like #fitspo and #fitspiration, put a problematic emphasis on thinness and physical attraction as the motivation and reward for exercise. Yet compared to some other hashtags….

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders dove deep into the controversial hashtags #thinspiration and #bonespiration, comparing the content using these hashtags to content using #fitspo. Researchers found #thinspiration content to focus on thinness and #bonespiration content to focus on extremely underweight women whose bones were protruding. #fitspo content, on the other hand, was far more focused on muscle development and athleticism.

While these hashtags were banned on multiple platforms in 2012, the content still exists.

People are constantly scrolling through images of the “ideal body” online but that “ideal body” isn’t realistic for everyone. And the problem isn’t new.

For years the fashion industry has been castigated for glorifying impossibly thin bodies but, slowly, things are changing. Fashion brands like Aerie are starting to be more inclusive with their models and sizing related to all women.

It’s taken decades to get here — so it’s probably unrealistic to think the same problem, now decentralized across all social media, will be solved quickly on Instagram or TikTok. But at least there’s a history of progress.

This post was written by Marist Poll College to Career intern Emily Frey.