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The Effect of Social Media on Body Image

What is regarded as the ideal of beauty in the Western world is communicated through different types of media. For women, the ideal of beauty is a slender body; for men, the ideal is a muscular but slender body. These ideals become influential when they are transmitted and strengthened by both one's peers and this tends to most prominently occur through social media.  


 


It is widely recognised that the ideal of female slenderness provided by the mass media has a negative influence on the body image and eating behaviours of girls and young women. Moreover, nowadays it has also been  recognised that the ideals of male beauty promoted by the mass media have similar negative effects on young men. 


 


Despite this awareness, the images of female bodies that the media proposes, and to which women are constantly subjected and exposed to, still represent a very unrealistic standard of the female body. In recent years, this ideal has seemed to become increasingly thin. 


 


For men, the ideal body appears to become ever more muscular and fit, with the media also depicting images of unrealistic bodies. In the past, the ideal man was an athletic one, with a fit body, but achievable through sport and training. Now, social media shows only perfectly sculpted male bodies, impossible to achieve for the vast majority of men. 


 


In today’s Western society, girls and boys are exposed on a daily basis to unrealistically slim and athletic beauty ideals. And thanks to the widespread use of social media, these ideals spread much faster and in a much more pervasive way, becoming seemingly impossible to avoid.


 


The role of social and mass media is to convey and spread the ideals and standards of what is socio-culturally defined as beauty. The different types of media thus have a decisive role in the self-objectification and self-assessment of individuals. Because they convey images of models defined by stereotypical female and male traits, the media shows these idealized bodies as desirable and necessary for social and even economic happiness and success. 


 


Academic Chiara Volpato states that the images found on social media accentuate the perception of a discrepancy between one’s own appearance and the socially accepted standard. Social networks convey the importance of these ideals through images of extremely slender celebrities and muscular and attractive actors. Thus, these messages have a pervasive effect on how girls and boys see their bodies and their attitude towards their own looks. 


 


Comparing their physical appearance with these images, young people focus on how their bodies do not conform to the ideal of beauty designed by the media. From these comparisons, girls and boys can develop bodily dissatisfaction and a negative body image. 


 


Currently, according to the professor of sociological and cultural studies Saveria Capecchi, the constant use and abuse of social media could exacerbate the process of objectification and formation of a bad body image, thanks to the constant publication of photos, selfies, stories and beyond. With social media, the body becomes a means to maximize the number of followers, likes, and achieve economic and social success. 


 


Numerous researchers have found that social media and, in general, mass media, are among the most powerful and most pervasive communicators of information. With today’s technology, adolescents find themselves exposed to an almost infinite amount of information, but they are not provided with the tools to filter and understand this information. They find themselves exposed to content that they may not be able to discern, due to variables such as age, level of education, and social class, that lead them to be more prone to the influence of social media messages. 


 


The sociocultural influence theories proposed by Benton and Karazsia in 2014 state that the media portrayal of ideal bodies is among the most pervasive influences at the time of generating a negative body image and one of aids in the development of eating disorders. 


 


This influence has been studied more with regard to the female gender, since the ideal of female slenderness is more widespread in all types of media. However, it does not detract from the fact that exposure to unrealistic ideals of beauty also has pervasive and negative effects on the male gender.  


 


The discrepancy between people’s  physical appearance and the ideals of beauty can cause, as mentioned, a sense of dissatisfaction with one’s physical form and generate a negative body image. In turn, this sense of dissatisfaction with one’s self and negative body image contribute to the development of problems that can affect the physical and mental health of individuals, like depression and eating disorders. 


 


Overall, the concept of body image is a multidimensional construct that seems to be in a constant flow and can change due to many influences. Some of the influences on the stability of body image are internal and some of them are external to the individual. 


 


In particular, varied research has shown that people’s perceptions and/or assessments of their bodies can change due to a variety of circumstances, including the exposure to images of idealized beauty through social media. With social media, the ideals of physical beauty have reached a completely unrealistic level, even through plastic surgery. 


 


Indeed, The bodies depicted online are almost fantastic, unachievable, and unrealistic to all humans. The constant exposure to these images has detrimental effects on young people’s body image and causes a general sense of dissatisfaction and self hatred.


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