The whole situation with coronavirus has undoubtedly taken us by surprise, and in many ways, it has changed our daily lives – myself included. One of the habits that I have unfortunately, developed is being unconsciously glued to my phone 24/7. While watching everyone on Instagram becoming a yoga expert, among other popular lockdown activities, I started wondering what the effect of this was having on my mental health. Don’t get me wrong, it is fantastic that Instagrammers can offer us a form of escapism during these turbulent times. However, for many, seeing such visuals can plunge you into a rabbit hole of social comparison. Therefore, it’s a great moment to ask the question – could social media be the cause of our undoing?
The dark side of Instagram
We are social creatures. The human mind often defaults to social comparison – what other people are doing, eating etc. As the Social Comparison Theory by Festinger (1954) states, we self-evaluate through judging ourselves against others. More worryingly, we also tend to use other people as reference points to compare our bodies. What happens when you add social media to the mix is that it often results in dissatisfaction with one’s body image. Psychologists say that because Instagram is based on visual communication, it is the easiest for its users to compare themselves with ideal standards of beauty. We are bombarded with pictures of thin and fit people, which serve to harm our body image.
Why is Instagram potentially worse than the fashion magazines and ads we see off-line? Such social networking sites are peer-generated. What does that mean? Well, the power of comparison is more potent when we’re talking about someone who has many similar characteristics to us. Therefore, a perfect, photoshopped model will not have such an effect as an authentic and spontaneous selfie from a social media friend. Potentially, because we are staying at home now, we can spend more time on social media. Platforms such as Instagram could have a more significantly detrimental effect on body image, especially the “fit inspirations”. What we can observe for the last couple of months is that all weights and yoga mats are sold out, everywhere. Exercise has been associated with a more positive body image (Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006). Still, there should not be any pressure to exercise because everyone does. Which, in fact, might be the case.
The long overdue change
Somehow, throughout the last years, we have accepted likes as a numerical measurement of physical beauty. This unbelievably reductionistic fact is the part of current reality. In the eyes of young girls, the number of likes equals not only their beauty but also how worthy they see themselves. Fortunately, this is where some people say enough is enough, urging for a pause in self-objectification and homogenous ideals of beauty. Billie Eilish spoke up about being more than her body in her short film “Not My Responsibility“. This is one of the profoundly empowering moments that we’ve recently experienced and desperately needed. She’s saying a definite no to being defined by her body.
In spite of the negativity, Instagram might not be all that bad. Body positivity content, such as Billie Eilish’s movie, is what we can actually see emerging on Instagram. As highlighted by fashion Psychologist Dr Aurore Bardey, “social media is changing – Instagram is where we can find diversity and representation. Whatever body type you have, you can find yourself in social media”. She underlines that Instagram is actually the most inclusive platform. The diversity we can see grow on social media decreases the negative aspects of social comparison. In some sense, Instagram has brought democracy to representations of beauty. With such a revolution of accepted beauty ideals, Instagram is where we can find a sense of belonging. In the end, it can actually have a positive effect on body image.
When talking about presenting an inclusive and diverse image of the female and male body, most of the fashion brands have a long way to go in how they promote themselves on social media.
When I asked Dr Bardey what advice she would give on the topic of lockdown and body image, she proposed trying out sustainability as an approach to daily life. Sustainability not only in the sense of material consumption but also the consumption of information and how we spend our time. It is the perfect time for reflection because we, in a sense, have to take a break from fashion. It is an incredibly fast-paced industry, now making an obligatory pause. Usually, trends on and off Instagram are incredibly short-lived. Therefore we are used to everything changing, always wanting something or simply wanting more. Thus, by valuing the time we have now, we can spend it more positively.
If the choice is to use social media, we can decide how to consume it. As Profesor Laurie Santos from Yale explains, the clue lies in what are the reference points that we’re letting inside our head. Are those the ones to which we will be making upward social comparisons that will make us feel dissatisfied? Perhaps, we could curate the information around us by allowing the information that is getting in to be more accurate and more representative of real people’s bodies, real people’s experiences. As she underlines, it is hard to stop information after it gets into your head, but you can choose what you allow to get in.
Any way you choose to spend your time in the lockdown is okay. It is not anyone’s right to dictate what you should do or how you should feel but if you’re feeling jealous or ‘not good enough’ it’s time to evaluate the content you’re consuming. Curate a feed that actually makes you feel good about yourselves. I mean, you have the time.