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Why does Instagram make us feel badly about ourselves?




Instagram users have two leading motives: self expression and social interaction. Users post pictures and curate an online identity as well as communicate and interact with their friends and followers. The development of self-expression online mixed with exposure to other users invites intrinsic psychological effects. Considering the prevalence of social media and Instagram in particular, few studies have been conducted on these effects, and fewer on Instagram’s relationship to body image. Dr. Ahadzadeh, Sharif & Ong, applied what’s called social comparison theory, where “Body dissatisfaction can be developed when one frequently compares one’s own physical appearance to the physical appearance of others”.

And, uh, that’s kind of a HUGE problem.

But what if we’re comparing ourselves to a false narrative?

Users actively notice the difference between their own images and their own bodies compared to what’s popular and ideal, whether that comes from their peers posts or a conceptualized image developed as a result of collage. Users aren’t only comparing themselves to others posts, but to their own. The incongruence of followers images with those that are either edited or manipulated of the user under study against the reality of their bodies causes personal displeasure. The expectations for young women have changed over the years, though women’s body sizes have increased and the thin ideal is even thinner. There is a polarizing correlation between body sizes and what is deemed attractive.

While previously most mass media channels contributing to body image concerns in young women were television, magazines and films, the Internet has become another active contributor.

Adolescents are particularly impressionable (duh)

The Internet is used by young girls for a variety of reasons beyond self-expression; while surfing, inevitably young women come across ads or other content that promote the beautiful feminine ideal. Few studies have been conducted on long term body image effects, particularly on young women. Body image for young girls becomes part of their identities; the value of ones appearance has been socialized into a means of evaluation, internally and externally.

Young girls experience physical changes that can be perceived internally and externally as positive or negative, an improvement or regression, such as growing breasts or developing acne, which scales back and forth closer and farther from socialized standards of beauty.

Adolescence is sensitive as young girls develop their social and personal values and ideals. Body surveillance increases as young women spend more time actively engaged in Instagram, with a direct link between time spent and self objectification.

Instagram is image based and yields positive or negative reactions to appearance and is therefore sexually objectifying. This objectification is enabled by the content in comments and implications of ‘liking’ pictures; the more often a user actively engages with Instagram, the more likely they are to read comments regarding their appearance which is linked to self objectification. This intense body surveillance can lead to cognitive drawbacks: the increased surveillance and awareness may encourage eating disorders and unhealthy lifestyle changes to achieve the ideal. Poor self esteem,: “…a lack of self respect for oneself, with feelings of unworthiness, inadequacies and deficiencies”, can also lead to depressive symptoms, bodily dissatisfaction, body image disturbance and bulimic symptomatology.

Users exposed to peers and celebrities on Instagram have an increase in a poorer mood and body image through appearance comparison. Celebrities on Instagram, “…well known individuals who receive excessive public attention…”, posting thin ideal and attractive photos encourage this negative mood and body image, as their results and image are unobtainable except through severe and intense action, such as eating disorders and cosmetic surgery to resemble ideals. We saw this specifically with Kim Kardashian’s eyes and jawline, encouraging the ‘contour’ fad. Brown & Tiggerman discuss celebrity worship, where users become particularly attached and feel connected to celebrities based on what they believe is a sense of understanding and intimate knowledge of the individual that can be enabled and encouraged through Instagram usage. This unrealistic connection contributes to negative body image as the celebrity user is considered a peer.

Poor self esteem combats its opposite, narcissism, through self promotion.

Instagram is a channel for impression management, and the chief motivations of Instagram use, self expression and social interaction, suggest that narcissism is both a by product and predictive force in Instagram content. Moon et al. discuss in Personality and Differences three branches of narcissism, including leadership and authority, grandiose and exhibitionism, and entitlement and exploitativeness. Instagram content is considered self promotional, as “nearly half of the photos posted and shared on Instagram as categorized as ‘selfies’ (24.2%) or self- presented photos with friends (22.4%)…”. Narcissistic users are concerned with their physical appearance and are happy with or highly rate their Instagram profile pictures and use Instagram more often, however, this did not always mean they posted more. Instagram users with lower self esteem used Instagram as a channel of compensation, particularly through selfies, seeking validation.

To zoom in on selfies, pun intended, Wagner et al. (2016) conducted a study where “…actual body size, body dissatisfaction, frequency of selfies taken, and number of Instagram selfies posted” were analyzed in order to better understand their correlations. According to Wagner’s and his peers, millennials are attracted to selfies as their means of technology have improved and their interest in creating an online identity highlighting ideals has developed. Instagram’s popularity may be due to its manner of hosting selfies, however, there are negative consequences of body dissatisfaction in users who are not as confident about their bodies or appearance.

What about personal branding?

Self presentation can be defined further as behavior “to create, modify, or maintain an impression of ourselves in the minds of others”. These impressions allow users to feel a sense of identity and validation, with practical use in developing ‘friendships’, as an attractive profile picture will more likely yield an accepted friend request, page visits, and online interaction. In contrast, self-schema is an understanding of the self that is applied to real life interactions. Body image is schematic in how an individual has taken account of reactions, comments, and social cues. Instagram offers a medium of developing body image schema by calculating likes, comments, views, and interaction.

Users begin to compare their actual selves to the ideal selves they create online, the result being feelings of dejection and failure. The environment is made up of selective photos that are meant to display only the best and is therefore an inaccurate means of comparison.

As technology evolves, so do our means of finding a mate.

Blame it on evolution: “…women possess an adaptive drive to evaluate their physical appearance, which may be triggered by their fertility status and the availability of mating opportunities.”

Now here are some (kind of obvious) kickers..(according to a study by Hendrickse et al. in 2017)

Young women are biologically fertile and consider appearance as a factor of attracting a mate.Young women who are not married or in a romantic relationship were more active on Instagram, which includes posting, commenting, and liking photos.

Basically… Darwinian theory: the idea is that young people, in the context of social media, women in particular, will compare how they look with other women in order to size up with the goal of attracting the best possible mate. Female users compete with other users and use Instagram as a tool to share their best photos, using filters, curating images to create an Internet identity, and to develop their own understanding of where they align on the Instagram attractiveness spectrum. This also leads to physical lifestyle changes including purges and restrictive diets. The more exposure female users have to other female users on Instagram, the greater the interest in being thinner, mediated by comparison theory.

Instagram’s functionality and practicality for young women seeking mates and developing their Internet identities includes intrasexual competition of sexual selection, “…an underlying mechanism of evolution that explains how males and females developed strategies to attract and retain high quality mates”. As Instagram is a means of analyzing others Internet identity, it can seem practically functional to take care in Internet Presence, display fertility and beauty, and consider Instagram a medium for modern and adaptive selection. In cases where a user does not feel they measure up, body dissatisfaction and lower self esteem occurs, and sometimes physical, behavioral, and lifestyle changes to achieve the ideal.

The real me is offline, thanks

Self objectification comes as a result of viewing an individuals body as separate from their own personality or traits, or a whole individual made up of a body and identity. The visual surveillance and self objectification comes from the considerations a user makes when posting on their own Instagram account as well as considering the comments and likes a photo receives, referred to as evaluative photo commentary, with a direct correlation between self objectification and time spent on sexual objectifying Instagram content. Instagram acts as an enabler for social standards of beauty and does so by correlating positive feedback through commentary, display, and likes, to users who may be considered the mainstream standard of beauty.

So are we doomed?

Feminism is commonly regarded as a belief system and political movement based on the notion that women should possess the same political, economic, and social power as men; that oppressive systems attempting to keep women subjugated should be challenged; and that women’s lack of power might impact their emotional well-being and other lived experiences.

Feminism mediates by offering a set of beliefs that reject the social standards that Instagram enables, which includes a rejection of sexual objectification and heteronormative roles. This rejection allows a focus on offline and internal accomplishments, values, and traits, without the limitations of self objectification. In other words, Feminist beliefs are a buffer to the negative consequences of Instagram exposure and lowered self esteem, as well as a platform for rejection of cultural standards with a focus on appearance.

Muren & Smolak (2009) performed a meta-analysis and discovered that when users identify with feminist values they are less likely to experience negative body image from exposure to images. Think of your hyper confident feminist-a. Be like her. She’s not bummed.

The internalization of the thin ideal is rejected. Feltman & Symanski also found that commentary on posts did not have an effect on body surveillance, in other words, whether someone responded to a post with positive or negative feedback did not affect body surveillance of self objectification. The fundamental finding:

“..higher feminist beliefs play a buffering or protective role whereas lower feminist beliefs play an intensifying role.”

Instagram is a significantly social medium. “Instagram has approximately 600 million active monthly users worldwide; approximately 80 million photographs are uploaded daily, collectively garnering an estimated 3.5 billion ‘likes’ [viewings] per day (Instagram 2017). Furthermore, the leading users of social media are young adults, and “Globally, 94% of internet users have at least one social media account and spend approximately 1.97 h per day on these sites, with young adults spending the most time on social networking sites” pulled from Global Webdex in 2016. Instagram’s powerful reach makes it critical to study in correlation with the most active users and the potential physical, behavioral, psychological effects.

To increase body satisfaction, users will use Instagram to post their best photos and display their ideal self. Self schema is the agent between Instagram and body image, and as self schema increases and decreases, as does risks of negative body image and potential lifestyle changes such as eating disorders.

Actual body size played an important role in this self objectification and body satisfaction, as Wagner et al. (2016) presented, where in their study the number of selfies taken was predicted by body dissatisfaction, the idea being ‘trial and error’ until perfection, or the closest to the thin ideal, is achieved to post (para. 21). Narcissism’s role in posting is simply that narcissists post more selfies and photos including themselves, as well as being pleased with their Instagram profile pictures and social feeds. The internalization of social values that fit gender roles, self objectification, and ideas about normative beauty contribute to body dissatisfaction, however, Feltman & Szymanski (2017) reported findings that feminist ideals had a buffering effect on these negative consequences, where, in regards to body surveillance: “…higher feminist beliefs play a buffering or protective role whereas lower feminist beliefs play an intensifying role”.

Instagram is an active social medium with a large and growing reach. Young girls using will internalize ideas of beauty, and it is important to note how Instagram usage may affect what those ideas are and how they will react to possibly not achieving them. Ahadzadeh’s study suggests the implications of eating disorders and encourages health professionals to take Instagram and self objectification seriously. It is wise to “…suggest that women might be advised to limit their exposure to celebrity and peer images” for the sake of mental health.

Psychoeducation and feminism may be a further interest of study to buffer young girls beauty standard internalization and self objectification. It would be interesting to see how feminist education would affect young women’s views on self objectification at different stages of exposure. Tiggerman & Slater also suggests both further study of and integration of media literacy programs for young girls. Intrasexual competition and social Darwinism are evolving, as media like Instagram change the venue of social comparison, self presentation and attempts to find suitable mates and partners.

Further research could include longitudinal studies using control group of users with limited exposure, which can be difficult to find organically, or users of different ethnic backgrounds and demographics, as most of the subjects of the studies mentioned were white, middle class, and university students. In conclusion, young girls are subjected early to a thin ideal that leads to self objectification and body surveillance which intensifies as media exposure increases. Users compare themselves to one another on the basis of Instagram presence and online identity, and young women perform sexually competitive tendencies using Instagram as a medium of self presentation with the goal of finding a mate. Instagram is a growing medium focused on photo sharing, and young girls exposure and interaction via likes, comments, and browsing, contribute negatively to body image through social comparison, however, there is a natural buffer via narcissism and feminism, with narcissism buffering as a means to further self presentation and feminism rejecting the patterns of normative beauty. As discussed, the current literature extends knowledge of Instagram’s effects on young girls body image, though longitudinal studies and more diverse samples could add value.


Further Reading

Ahadzadeh, A.S., Sharif, P.S. & Ong, F.S. (2017) Self-schema and self-discrepancy mediate the Influence of Instagram usage on body image satisfaction among youth. Computers in Human Behavior, 67, 8–16.

Brown, J.D (2007). The self. New York: Psychology Press. Brown, Z. & Tiggerman, M. (2016). Attractive celebrity and peer images on Instagram: Effect on women’s mood and body image. Body image, 19, 37–43.

Clay, D., Vignoles, V. & Dittmar, H. (2005). Body image and self-esteem among adolescent girls: Testing the influence of sociocultural factors. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 15(4), 451–477.

Feltman, C.E. & Szymanski, D.M. (2017). Instagram use and self-objectification, the roles of internalization, comparison, appearance complementary, and feminism. Sex Roles.

Hendrickse, J., Arpan, L.M., Clayton, R.B., & Ridgeway, J.L. (2017). Instagram and college women’s body image: investigating the roles of appearance-related comparisons and intrasexual competition. Computers in Human Behavior, 74, 92–100.

Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemeta and processing of informationa bout the self.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(2), 63–78.

Moon, J.H., Lee, E., Lee, J., Choi, T.R. & Sun, Y. (2016). The role of narcissism inself-promotion on instagram. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 22–25.

Murnen, S. K., & Smolak, L. (2009). Are feminist women protected from body image problems? A meta-analytic review of relevant research. Sex roles, 60, 186–197. Doi:10.1007/s11199–008–9523–2.

Sinton, M. M., &Birch, L. L. (2006) Individual and sociocultural influences on pre-adolescent girls’ appearance schemas and body dissatisfaction. Journal of Youthand Adolescence, 35(2), 157–167.

Tiggerman, M. & Slater, A. (2013). Netgirls: the internet, facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(6), 630–633.

Wagner, C., Aguirre, E. & Sumner, E.M. (2016). The relationship between Instagram selfies and body image in young adult women. First Monday, 21(9).

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