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Selfie-esteem: the impact of social media on body image

You might have read our article about the worrying trend of selfie-editing apps a couple of weeks ago, but I’m here to explore the issue even further.

This year’s body image report by The Mental Health Foundation shows that one-third of teenagers in the UK are ‘ashamed’ of what they look like and 40% blame it on social media content. If you want to know more, click here.

Photoshopping images used to be a technique reserved for models in glossy magazines. Now, thanks to ever more affordable and easy-to-use software, anyone can retouch a photograph in a matter of seconds.

In February, British photographer John Rankin tasked 15 teenagers with editing portraits of themselves until they believed the images were ‘social media ready’ for a project called Selfie-Harm.

‘Today, more so than ever, people are mimicking their idols, making their eyes bigger, their nose smaller and their skin brighter – all for social media likes,’ said Rankin. ‘It’s just another reason why we’re living in a world of FOMO, sadness, increased anxiety, and Snapchat dysmorphia. It’s when people are making an alternative or ‘better’ social media identity that this becomes a mental health problem.’

While I’m fully aware I’ll never look like the women I see on the internet, I continue to find myself worrying about the fact I don’t have a ‘perfect body’ which in my eyes is a tiny waist, flat stomach and big breasts – pretty unrealistic right?

So why do I, amongst the vast majority of people my age, struggle so much with body image when now, more than ever, we are being taught to ‘love ourselves for who we are?’

The answer is pretty simple

The media’s portrayal of women has always been met with high levels of criticism. Magazines and sexist advertising on television continue to present the ‘ideal’ body type of flawless supermodels and photo shopped celebrities which causes us to question the way we look and lose confidence in ourselves.

These are often blamed for the effect that their interpretation of ‘the perfect woman’ has on impressionable young girls and their self-esteem, but there exists an even bigger issue in the 21st century: social media.

In the last decade, Facebook and Instagram have become an essential part of our daily lives and play a crucial role in the development of our attitudes towards appearance.

Thanks to its popularity, social media is a hugely influential force and many young people are living their lives through it, truly believing it’s more important than reality.

Essena O’Neill, an internet star who quit social media in 2015 to prove the point that it is simply a means of fake self-promotion stresses that ‘it is not real life.’ People tend to only post the most attractive pictures they have of themselves and increased exposure to these images may lead to a distorted and unrealistic idea of body types.

My current screen time averages at about three hours a day which is ridiculous if you consider that most of the time I’m sat swiping through images of beautiful girls, telling myself to go a diet and start exercising but I still eat copious amounts of chocolate and avoid the gym at all costs.

If social media is having a genuine impact on my self-esteem and overall satisfaction with who I am, god knows what it’s doing to teenage girls.

The world through a filter

‘We are seeing the world through a filter, and that’s not healthy’ said former MP Caroline Nokes in 2015. ‘The answer to body anxiety is to showcase a more diverse range of bodies in the media because there is not just one way to be healthy or one ideal look.’

This toxic online environment teaches us to compare ourselves to women with access to the best skincare, fitness programmes and plastic surgeons available and results in feelings of unnecessary inadequacy.

We’re constantly striving to be like the women whose accounts we follow or the models and celebrities that repeatedly appear on our ‘discover’ pages and are becoming consumed by our need to fit in, obsessing over the number of likes we receive on a post and relying on praise from people we don’t even know.

It gives the impression of normality and it’s so dangerous.

‘People using social media sites also tend to cultivate a persona and we exist in a world today where everything can be faked or fixed’ says Dr Phillippa Diedrichs, professor at the University of West England’s Centre for Appearance Research.

Take Kylie Jenner for example. Barely an adult, she is one of the top 10 most followed people on Instagram worldwide and the youngest-ever-self-made billionaire thanks to her family’s fame and self-built make-up ‘empire’. Consequently, Jenner has been able to completely transform her appearance with lip injections, false lashes and hair extensions (to name a few) granting her the title of ‘beauty icon’ and ‘cosmetics queen’ amongst her fans.

This suggests that to be considered beautiful you must change the way you look. How can we ever be expected to accept who we are if we must be an even more polished version of ourselves?

‘Instagram makes me so anxious. I’m always looking at other women thinking, ‘I wish I looked like that.’ I mean, young girls can now follow Victoria’s Secret models and see what they look like in the ‘every day.’ That has got to make any woman, let alone a 13-year-old girl, feel unsure of herself,’ says designer Emily Bryngelson. The impact this is having on our body image is a problem just too important to ignore.

It’s time to do something about this harmful aspect of our culture. Every day it is growing in strength, and although of course I do assume responsibility for using similar technology in the past, we need to look at these new and (I think) dangerous developments with a critical eye.