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I’m sure I can speak for us all when I say my screen time has significantly gone up throughout the pandemic. As much as I don’t like to admit it, it’s the result of mindlessly scrolling on Instagram. However, research suggests that the app may contribute to adverse psychological outcomes and poor appearance-related self-perception or as some call it ‘influencer envy’.

The rise of technology has meant the ability to manipulate the way we look has become effortless. Subsequently, new generations are exposed to much more than just airbrushed photoshoots in magazines. A few scrolls down our feed and most of us will see Instagram models, influencers and even peers who perpetuate an unattainable standard of beauty whether it’s “knowing your angles”, a face filter or smoothing out your skin. Apps such as Facetune allow physical features to be manipulated entirely with the click of a few buttons, removing imperfections to whiten teeth, slim waists and reduce sizes to be accepted as beauty ideals.

Comparison Culture

Social Comparison Theory’ suggests individuals drive to evaluate their progress and in the absence of objective standards, people compare themselves to others to know where they stand. However, on Instagram, we can compare ourselves to these edited pictures or individuals with cosmetic surgery (without realising). You may think you easily spot editing; however, only 60%- 65% of the time people recognise edited photos.

A debate has arisen about whether it should be compulsory for manipulated faces and bodies to be labelled as edited on Instagram. This has been proven somewhat controversial- what is your take? On the one hand, it creates a warped sense of beauty, especially for vulnerable women with lower self-esteem. However, is it right to police people’s bodies, especially when it may make the poster feel more confident? Researchers found that viewing an idealised image from social media had a negative influence on women’s body image, no matter if it came with a disclaimer or not. Although, disclaimers lead viewers to form a less favourable impression of the poster. This suggests it may do more harm than good as the posters emotional wellbeing may lower with no effect on the viewer.

A rise in cosmetic surgery 

Evidence suggests social media pushes us to take part in life-threatening beauty trends in the interest of acceptance and social compliance in society, affecting emotional wellbeing. WomensHealth found that those in their 20s desired the fox eye effect of having eyes stretched upwards and back (as if pulled in a secure high ponytail) more than any other age group. This leads to surgery involving implanting dissolvable threads under their skin to hoist it up or Botox to raise their eyebrows. This was most likely the result of repeated exposure to this popular beauty trend and wanting to look more like models such as Bella Hadid. It seems women persist in internalising these beauty ideals as a model for their own comparisons. Consequently, steps need to be taken to help those affected by idealised images on Instagram.

With that Being Said Positive Psychology Can Help…

Positive emotions broaden momentary ‘thought-action repertoire’ (so, like how joy sparks the urge to play), which widens an individual’s mindset. Having an open mind while scrolling down the gram means you are more receptive to different information types. Putting you in an excellent position to judge whether the image is altered and whether or not you should engage in social comparison. These actions then become internalised and lead to feelings of acceptance.

In a 2020 study, women either observed ‘Instagram vs reality’, ‘ideal’ or ‘real’ images. Viewing the ‘Instagram vs reality’ and ‘real’ images whilst identifying the ‘ideal’ images as fake, disrupted the ‘social comparison process’ and reduced body dissatisfaction. This research suggests Instagram can enhance self-esteem with the photos associated with hashtag trends such as #instagramvsreality and #nomakeup as they promote self-acceptance. 

“If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all. No one lacks it all.”

– Christopher Peterson

Therefore, follow some ‘real’ accounts representative of yourself to minimise the risk of engaging in unhealthy social comparison. 

Here are my recommendations for excellent reality-checking and body positivity accounts: 

1.  @danaemercer

“Reminding you you’re special.”

2. @planetprudence  

“Helping you see that your thoughts aren’t alone.”

3. @celebface

“WELCOME TO REALITY.”

4. @stephanieyeboah

“Self Love Advocate”

5. @hi.ur.beautiful 

“Here to remind you that there is no bad way to have a body.”

So what’s stopping you from using Instagram as a tool to foster an appreciation for the full spectrum of beauty!

Fashion is a reflection of society and current events, and therefore fashion trends can reflect much of what is going on at the time. Our purchasing decisions can also be influenced by popular figures such as celebrities and other high-profile individuals. However, with today’s society being surrounded by social media, there is a new factor to consider when looking at what impacts fashion trends – influencers. 

The Rise of Influencer Marketing 

Research into consumer behaviour has highlighted how over the last few years, influencer marketing has become increasingly popular, and now represents a specific type of social media marketing. In one study, 92% of consumers stated that they trusted influencers more than advertisements and celebrity endorsements. Considering that the term ‘influencer marketing’ only came to exist in the last decade, it has seen quite a substantial boom. Just one reason for this is that consumers view influencers as more relatable than celebrities. When looking at the key demographic of teens, 60% said that they follow advice from influencers over celebrities, and 70% said that they also trust influencers more. Through social media, we are able to gain a glimpse into their everyday lives, and for those that consistently interact with their followers, there seems to be less of a social divide between influencer and follower.  

 

The Psychology of the Influencer Effect

This increased trust in influencers has been the subject of much psychological research. When focusing specifically on fashion influencers, Chetioui and colleagues (2020) found that the perceived credibility of an influencer was the strongest factor that affected an individual’s attitude towards them, closely followed by expertise and trust. Interestingly, this research also not only suggests that fashion influencers affect our attitudes toward a brand, but that they also create purchase intentions. Research from the visual content firm, Olapic, even found that 31% of consumers purchased a product or service based on an influencer’s post. 

So, how can we connect the prediction of the latest fashion trends with this boom in influencer marketing? Simply put, if influencers have the power to create purchase intentions, they can create the latest trend. For example, everyday leather was an unexpected 2020 fashion trend driven by influencers and was quickly made to be a part of our wardrobes. Fashion trend forecasting can be defined as the prediction of the mood, behaviour and buying habits of consumers during a particular season, and ultimately, influencers play a substantial role in all of these factors. We cannot understand trends without looking at the impact of influencers. As a result of social media, consumers are also contributors; we get to create and define our own styles, and if we have a large enough following, perhaps even define the latest trend.

The Rise of Fast Fashion

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this position of power is its impact on fast fashion. Research conducted by the Fashion Retail Academy revealed that more than half of shoppers believe that social media influencers are the cause of the rise in fast fashion. Given that sites such as Instagram are now one of the top sources of fashion inspiration, with nearly a fifth of people using it to find the latest trends, this should not be a surprise. Influencers are rarely seen sporting the same outfit and with the ease of buying through affiliate links and swiping up on stories, the fashion industry has become more fast-paced than ever.

Positive Influencer Impact 

Yet still, we shouldn’t allow our perception of influencers to be skewed. It’s not rare to see negative portrayals of influencers in the press, but research has demonstrated that they can actually have a positive impact on purchasing decisions. For example, Lim and colleagues (2017) found that compelling social media influencers have a positive impact on consumers’ purchase intentions. Although this positive impact is dependent on the influencer themselves, ultimately, they have the potential to advocate positive buying behaviour (such as sustainable fashion consumption for example). 

Overall, it is clear that social media influencers have a unique and personal connection with their audiences and that this has an impact on purchasing decisions. We can also see their role in predicting the latest fashion trends, and despite the possible negative connotations around the word ‘influencer’, there is the potential for a positive impact. It’s always important to do your due diligence and place your trust in the right people. 

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.

The antidote

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.