Selfie-Esteem: The Relationship Between Body Dissatisfaction and Social Media in Adolescent and Young Women

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Sele-Esteem: The Relationship
Between Body Dissatisfaction and
Social Media in Adolescent and Young
written by Bindal Makwana, Yaeeun Lee, Susannah Parkin & Leland
edited by Eiko Fried
Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook have become ingrained in
the lives of countless individuals. With adolescents and young adults, particularly
young women, being the primary users of such platforms, it is an important
question whether social media use has an impact on self-concept, self-esteem, body
image, and body dissatisfaction. Researchers have started to empirically
investigate these questions, and recent studies show mixed results. The present
article attempts to review these ndings and oers possible explanations for
eects of social media use on body dissatisfaction, with a focus on Instagram,
Facebook, and other popular image-based platforms.
“Social media is not real life,” stated Essena O’Neill, a 19-year-old Australian
Internet star who quit social media in November of 2015 to prove the point that
social media is just a means of fake self-promotion. Essena was a star on
Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, and other social media platforms, with over 600,000
followers on Instagram alone (McCluskey, 2016). As soon as she went silent, her
fans and friends created an uproar. They called the Australian teen out and
accused her of intentionally closing her social media accounts in an attempt to
attract more fame and attention. Her fans, friends, and followers began posting
blogs and videos in reaction to Essena quitting social media, with some going so
far as sending death threats.
Bindal Makwana
Yaeeun Lee
Susannah Parkin
Leland Farmer
article author(s)
article keywords
social media
body image
article glossary
social media
body image
body dissatisfaction
Image-based social media
eating disorder
social comparison
eating concerns
(personal) control
magazine issue 12018 / Issue 35
The same week Essena quit Instagram, The Guardian’s Mahita Gajanan (2015)
asked other young women about their self-esteem and experiences with social
media. Her ndings were in line with Essena’s; most of the women that were
interviewed felt insecure. Many young women reported obsessing over the
number of “likes” they were getting, feared not looking beautiful in their photos,
thought individuals would think they looked dierent on social media than in real
life, and questioned what aspects of their life people would get a glimpse of. It
was a common theme that women were dedicating extensive amounts of time to
thinking about what image to upload, photoshopping it and regularly checking
their personal page to see the updated “like” counts, which in turn increased their
own insecurities. Even though many women were aware of these actions, they
were consumed by their need to t in on social media and struggled to disrupt
their habits. Numerous young women reported that they lived their lives via social
media and regarded media presence as more important than real life. This
preoccupation with social media and the compulsive behaviors that follow may
potentially contribute to body dissatisfaction. However, to this day, research
ndings have been mixed, and the exact relationship between social media
behavior and body dissatisfaction is unclear.
The Inuence of Media
Social media usage in particular has increased dramatically over the last decade
and continues at an incline. Pew Research Center indicates that 71% of 13- to 17-
year-olds use Facebook, 52% use Instagram, and 41% use Snapchat in 2015.
Teenage girls are also using image-based social media platforms more frequently
than their male counterparts; 61% of girls use Instagram versus 44% of boys. This
increase in usage of social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, may
negatively aect adolescent girls and young women in regard to their self-
condence and body satisfaction (Lenhart, 2015).
Some researchers have portrayed links between body dissatisfaction and eating
disorders with exposure to fashion magazines or television shows in women
(Grabe et al., 2008; Levine & Murnen, 2009). These studies examined exposure to
media forms and body image to show that there may be a link between viewing
images of thin bodies and personal body dissatisfaction. Another study by Becker
and colleagues (2011) suggests that media eects can even take place indirectly.
The authors studied whether direct and indirect exposure to mass media (i.e.,
television, videos, CD players, MP3 players, internet access, mobile phone access)
were associated with eating pathology in Fijian adolescent girls. They found
relationships between both direct mass media exposure (i.e., personal media
exposure) and indirect mass media exposure (i.e., media exposure to the people
in one’s peer group) with eating pathology in Fijian adolescent girls. Despite its
limitations, such as the question of whether the ndings can be generalized
(Becker et al, 2011), the study suggests that at least in this case,social networks
played an important role in the relationship between media and eating
pathology, which may extend to a relationship between media and body
However, these ndings must be taken with knowledge that some other
researchers have found no link between viewing image based media and body
dissatisfaction. Holmstrom (2004) conducted a meta-analysis on the pre-existing
literature focusing on general media exposure and body dissatisfaction, body
image and eating disorder pathology. Holmstrom focused on 34 studies that used
media as the independent variable and a form of body image dissatisfaction as the
dependent variable and the overall eect size was small. Surprisingly, the
research showed that women reported feeling better about their bodies after
viewing overweight images and had no change in body image after viewing thin
bodies. These ndings blur the potential relationship between body image and
media and suggest a need to further investigate.
A more recent meta-analysis conducted by Ferguson (2013) extended the work of
Holmstrom (2004), Grabe and colleagues (2008) and other researchers, and
incorporated ndings from 204 studies. A major point that Ferguson honed in on
was publication bias; more specically, that statistically signicant results are
more likely to be published and null ndings are not, with meta-analyses being a
collection of biased ndings. Ferguson (2013) found little to no relationship
between media and body dissatisfaction in males, however, there was a higher,
but very small, prevalence in females, especially for those with a predisposition
for body image issues. Overall, the meta-analysis encouraged researchers to be
more conservative in their assertions of a relationship between social media and
body dissatisfaction due to inated eect sizes, study design limitations, and
publication bias.
Social Media Usage
Social media oers a collaborative space for social interaction between seemingly
innite numbers of people. Several benets have been identied in relation to the
routine use of social media platforms. “The six key overarching benets were
identied as (1) increased interactions with others, (2) more available, shared,
and tailored information, (3) increased accessibility and widening access to health
information, (4) peer, social, emotional support, (5) public health surveillance, and
(6) potential to inuence health policy” (Moorhead et al., 2013, p. 8). Although
there are several benets associated with the use of social media, specically
image based social media, some uses of these platforms may lead to potentially
unwanted eects. The primary image based social media platforms this review
examines are Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook.
Lewallen and Behm-Morawitz (2016) suggest that adolescent girls and young
women following tness boards on Pinterest were more likely to report
intentions to engage in extreme weight-loss behaviors, such as crash dieting or a
radical exercise plan. In response to images viewed on the tness boards on
Pinterest, these adolescent girls and young women initiated a process of self-
reection, which increased intention to engage in extreme weight-loss behaviors.
Overall, the results of this study revealed that social media environments might
inuence adolescent girls and young women to engage in social comparison
leading to feelings of inadequacy and body dissatisfaction (Alperstein, 2015).
Furthermore, based on the results of this study and others, negative body image
concerns appear to be higher for those who internalized negative messages and
images (Alperstein, 2015; Bell, 2016).
Currently, studies link social media platforms with body dissatisfaction in
adolescent girls (Tiggemann & Miller, 2010; Tiggemann & Slater, 2013). In order
to investigate the underlying processes, one study investigated over 100 seventh
graders and found that adolescent girls who shared more photos online, such as
seles, and used more photoshop felt worse about their appearance and
exhibited greater eating concerns (McLean et al., 2015). Specically, some studies
suggest greater usage of social media heighten body dissatisfaction due to an
increase in appearance-related comments from friends (de Vries et al., 2015).
Using applications and other editing devices, such as Photoshop, to alter seles is
nothing new for many teens and women. Thanks to an array of free applications,
people can alter the way their bodies look in photos with a swipe or a click. Teens
can cover up blemishes, alter their facial shape, and manipulate their bodies to
look thinner and more attractive (e.g., making their waists smaller or their breasts
bigger). Even the popular socialites Kim and Khloe Kardashian have utilized
Photoshop to post edited seles for their Instagram accounts. As pointed out in
an article by Mirror Magazine, many fans have criticized the sisters for unrealistic
alterations to make themselves look thinner and more toned (Rutter & Strang,
Instagram and Body Dissatisfaction
Instagram is one of the most popular social media platforms (Kharpal, 2015). It
allows users to communicate solely through posting and sharing photos.
Researchers have looked at the role of Instagram on body image with adolescent
girls and young women, the most frequent users of the social media platform.
Anecdotally, in an interview with Elle Magazine, Emily Bryngelson, an associate
designer at Ann Taylor, who admitted to struggling with an eating disorder as a
teenager, revealed that she deletes seles if she doesn’t receive enough “likes”
(Fleming, 2014). She explains, “Instagram makes me so anxious. I’m always
looking at other women thinking, ‘I wish I looked like that,’ or ‘I should get more in
shape.’…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.”
Studies on Instagram have mostly focused on tspiration pictures and content in
the young adult population. Fitspiration is a movement that promotes a healthy
lifestyle, primarily through food and exercise. Despite its good intentions,
researchers have suggested dysfunctional themes in the images and messages.
For instance, when over 600 tspiration images were studied, one major theme
regarding the female body emerged: thin and toned (Tiggemann & Zaccardo,
2016). In addition, most images were found to contain elements objectifying the
female body. However, we must wonder whether the blogs themselves are
problematic or if the viewers are construing the content in a negative way. In
other words, are certain individuals viewing a toned or thin body, comparing
themselves to it, and then feeling bad about their own body?
Furthermore, some researchers suggest that even the mere act of watching
tspiration on Instagram can lead to unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors in
young adults (Holland & Tiggemann, 2016). In one experiment where 130 female
undergraduates were randomly exposed to either tspiration or neutral travel
images, scientists found that the appearance-based pictures of tspiration had a
negative impact on mood, body image, and self-esteem (Tiggemann & Zaccardo,
2015). In other words, the college students who viewed tspiration images felt
worse about themselves and their bodies compared to the students who viewed
neutral images. Limitations of these studies need to be kept in mind when
interpreting the ndings. Using travel photos as a control to tspiration may not
have isolated the variable of interest and resulted in inaccurate ndings. We
expect humans to socially compare themselves to other humans more than they
do with landscape. Future studies should consider incorporating control photos
featuring attractive, but average-sized women, for example, to produce more
comparable results.
Facebook and Body Dissatisfaction
Alongside Pinterest and Instagram, Facebook is common among adolescent girls
and is associated with body dissatisfaction (Kimbrough et al., 2013; Tiggemann &
Slater, 2013; Fardouly, Diedrichs, Vartanian, & Halliwell, 2015; Fardouly &
Vartanian, 2015). For example, Tiggeman and Slater (2013) found that teenage
girls who used Facebook were more concerned with monitoring body
appearance, idealizing thinness, and pursuing thinness, than were teenage girls
who did not use Facebook. Furthermore, in comparison to viewing an
appearance-neutral website (i.e., a home craft website), viewing Facebook was
associated with more negative mood and body dissatisfaction for women who
tend to compare their appearance with others (Fardouly et al., 2015). However,
rather than the time spent on Facebook, the way people use it, such as
interacting with photos, seems to explain the relationship with body dissatisfaction
(Meier & Gray, 2014; Fardouly & Vartanian, 2015; Kim & Chock, 2015). Meier and
Gray (2014), for example, found that time spent on photo activity, rather than
time spent on Facebook generally, was linked to thin-idealization, self-
objectication, weight dissatisfaction, and pursuit of thinness.
Similarly, Kim and Chock (2015) found that “social grooming” behaviors such as
“liking”, visiting, and commenting on friends’ posts and photos were linked to
body image concerns. The researchers explained this link through the notion that
“social grooming” activities lead to viewing other individuals’ proles, particularly
their photos. People tend to post attractive images of themselves on social media
platforms (Manago et al., 2008), and increased exposure to these images may
lead to a distorted and idealized conceptualization of body shapes. In October
2016, model and actress Gisele Bundchen posted a photo of herself on
Facebook and within three weeks received 105,000 likes, 1,125 shares, and 1,437
comments such as “I want that bronzed skin!” and “Can I use it as a prole
picture?” This type of social comparison has the potential to lead to poor body
image, especially for adolescent girls and young women (Fardouly & Vartanian,
In Summary
The popularity of media, particularly social media, in youth makes it a potentially
inuential force. The ndings discussed above provide a foundation for future
research and have opened up important discussions on how social media use
may inuence body dissatisfaction. However, many studies are correlational, and
the causal mechanisms behind the potential relationships are still unknown.
Much of the ndings may be applicable to an individual and not generalizable to
the general public. Much work is needed in the future to parse apart potential
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