Social media and body perception

I recently came across an editorial article that used the words “snapchat body dysmorphia” and right away I thought: yes! It strongly reminded me of the undeniable impact of social media on our body perception.

First of all, body dysmorphia is a severe disorder. I’m not getting into the discussion whether social media causes it. But I do believe it at least alters our perception of “a normal body”. As a professional photographer (and as someone that consumes a lot of social media), I’ve certainly seen the effects at work.

Society, and therefore media, have always impacted our body perception

Being subjected to “beauty ideals” is a thing of all ages. It seems that having to live up to certain standards is part of being human. It’s incredible what people have (and still!) put themselves through in terms of standards created by their leaders (or oppressors).

What has changed however with social media is the constant and relentless “in your face” existence of photographs that reflect an unobtainable life(style) and body.

There’s a big difference between reading a magazine or watching a TV show and seeing photographs on your phone for hours every single day.

How does social media impact the way we view ourselves?

1. Commercials

The most obvious suspect would be commercials. Especially because social media cater exactly to your sensitivities. When googling a specific product or question related to body issues, you can bet that your social media feeds will immediately get flooded by relevant (and sneaky) advertisements.  

From a commercial perspective, it’s beneficial when people view themselves as “flawed” or “lacking”, because they can be sold to. For example the cosmetic industry wants to convince you how their products will make you “more beautiful”. I went through a phase of buying the weirdest anti cellulite products (machines, cremes, etc.). Why? Because I thought having cellulite made me ugly and unworthy of wearing a bathing suit. Apparently, the commercials that showed the perfect bikini girls with amazingly toned legs had gotten to me.

Many of us would pay good money for a quick body fix. Sounds like a great opportunity for several industries. And social media offers the perfect medium for these companies to reach a huge audience.

2. Native advertising and influencers/celebrities

While this category actually fits under the previous, I kept it separately for emphasis. I’m sure you’ve seen Instagram feeds that show people’s perfect life, perfect body and their perfect always-travelling lifestyle. They could very well be influencers’ accounts. At first glance influencers look like “regular people” who don’t gain a commercial benefit by recommending products or services. But in fact they do: they make money or receive goods and services by selling and promoting products.

And as opposed to “traditional” celebrities who are more obviously different than us, the influencers have the appeal of looking “normal”. “If they can have it, I could have it.”

3. Your friends

On social media, people tend to share only the good parts, and understandably so. It’s as if we’re all trying to create our “perfect” lives online. Not only do we want our activities and environment to be exciting, we also have a bias towards sharing the most flattering photos of ourselves. For example, people who are insecure about their bodies will rarely post a full body photo. And how many of us take a selfie from a downward angle, making sure we look extra slim?

This was an important realization for me. It took me a while to understand that other people deal with the same struggles as me, and that social media doesn’t show a complete, realistic picture.

4. You!

Your selfies might change how you look at yourself. I first came across this phenomenon in my photography business. A client got upset about their portrait, and told me it wasn’t what they looked like. Only after checking their social media feed, did I realize they consistently photographed themselves from a downward angle and applied alteration filters on top of that. There were no other realistic photos on their page.

A photograph is always less forgiving than the way people perceive you in real life. It’s a capture of a moment. In real life, you move in fluid motions, use hand gestures and facial expressions, which project a dynamic image to the observer rather than the static one of a picture. Not to mention that a camera zooms in a lot closer on your face, than the average conversation partner. But I digress.

The dangers of beauty filters

Moving on from social media to beauty filters. We all have that friend, who only shares heavily edited photos.

Apps are available that allow you to manipulate (“photoshop”) your photo in whatever way you can think of. Add fake makeup, smoothen skin, make your eyes bigger, you name it.

And then there are filters on Snapchat and Instagram stories which are even easier to use. In fact, these filters have become so accessible that many of us apply them daily. It’s easy to forget about their existence, and assume we’re seeing reality.

As an experiment, I asked a few friends to take 3 photos of themselves: 1 neutral, 1 with Instagram filter “Golden Hour” and 1 with a Snapchat beauty filter. To compare the photos better, I flipped the selfies, because the other apps did this automatically. And then seeing the results, I knew which one I preferred! You can see them at the end of this article. Isn’t the impact of these filters extreme and unrealistic?

Awareness

I’ve barely scratched the surface of how social media influences how we perceive our bodies. With this post I want to bring awareness about the topic.

If you struggle with insecurities about your body, try to get to the root of your feelings first. Know that if your emotions are often created and enforced by entities whose only goal is to make money, not to make you happy. Ask yourself these tough questions:

  • Why do I dislike this part of my body?
  • Is it brought on by a profit-driven industry or Is it because of bullying?
  • Did a family member or friend say something to me that stuck?

Your answers can help you narrow down the cause of your insecurity, a first step towards creating a happier relationship with yourself.

Our connection with our bodies is complex and personal. There’s no quick fix to buy or switch we can flip. But I know that I want to slowly break free from my shame and insecurities. I want to respect and love my body. All I can do is start with awareness.

PS: A big hug to my friends below that were brave enough to share their selfies with you!

Me
My friend Courtney
My sister Nele
My friend Stef, who is an image coach at Violet Energetics
My friend Roxana
My dad, who chose a hilarious snapchat filter. 😉
My half sister Luna