Social media has created a diverse landscape for users to create, connect, and share images and information, an amazing platform in good hands right? Health and fitness related pages, personalities, and channels on social media have grown exponentially, as users seek out information, motivation, and inspiration for how to be the best version of themselves. Fitspiration has emerged as a popular trend, promoting health and fitness through exercise routines, diet advice and guidance on how to achieve the optimally ‘healthy life’. Although some people report that fitspiration inspires them to choose healthier foods, move their body and build social support, there are several concerns over its impact on body image, particularly for women.
Research has found that although elements of fitspiration may be well intentioned, there are features that contribute to body concerns. Fitspo focused imagery often displays thin, toned and athletic bodies, which develops and contributes to idealised thoughts of what aspirational health looks like. Fitspiration pairs messages of healthy eating and active movement with imagery that is still underpinned by aesthetic perfection. Idealised appearance ideals can create feelings of inadequacy and what could be perceived as aspirational health can cause more harm than good. Studies have shown that the more people view fitspiration content the more likely they are to experience body dissatisfaction, lowered mood and negative perceptions of healthy goals. So it could be doing more harm than good, which means at some point, we need to take a step back and assess how ‘fitspo’ is affecting us!
Aspirational ideals and appearance comparison
The highly visual nature of social media and fitspiration content leads to users often engaging in appearance comparison and internalisation. Psychological research has focused on understanding both processes of comparison and internalisation, and how they can impact body image issues, mental health and well-being. Comparison theory, or the ‘comparison game’ we’ve all played at times, argues that individuals engage in self-evaluation by comparing themselves to the traits, abilities, and characteristics of others. Researchers have found that online, individuals often engage in upward appearance comparison (to those they deem more attractive or more athletic) and do so despite the negative consequences to their own body image. Comparison processes have been found to be unintentional and automatic, meaning it is difficult to protect ourselves against comparison, particularly when the content stream is never ending (eeep that’s scary right?).
Internalisation involves individuals using imagery to cognitively affirm socially established beauty standards and holding those standards as personally desired or preferred appearance outcomes. Idealised images are often edited, more than we realise too, and therefore set unrealistic standards, but women begin to accept these unachievable beauty ideals as normative and expected. Investment into these expectations can often lead women to engage in thoughts (such as negative self-talk) and behaviours (diets and extreme exercise) to meet those expectations. Studies have found that both upward comparison and internalisation of appearance ideals are key underlying factors in the relationship between what we consume on social media and how we feel about ourselves and our body. So in other words, our relationship with social media and how we view ourselves is pretty profound and therefore pretty darn important!
Self compassion and self-connection
Thankfully research has also sought to understand tools and strategies that can assist us to coexist in a world with social media and fitspiration, and yet still feel strong, safe and supported in our own bodies. Self-compassion is an emotion regulation strategy that can be utilised by individuals to direct compassion towards themselves during suffering, setback and pain. Self-compassion works to deactivate the psychological threat system and activate self-soothing. There are six interrelated facets of self-compassion that were conceptualised by Kristen Neff. Three compassionate self-responding facets (self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness) and three uncompassionate self-responding facets (self-judgement, isolation, and over-identification). As individuals we can work towards supporting ourselves through stressful situations (such as social media doom scrolling) through mindfully cultivating self-compassionate responding and reducing uncompassionate self-responding. There are numerous occasions where the facets of self-compassion can act as protective factors for appearance and body image concerns.
- Showing kindness to yourself and your body when facing harsh criticism from yourself or others can help soothe us during times of distress.
- Reducing self-judgement towards yourself when you feel your appearance doesn’t align with society's ideals of “fit, toned or athletic”, through the understanding that ideals are not reality.
- Understand that flaws and imperfections are a part of the human experience and develop a broader more inclusive idea of what is beautiful.
- Understand and accept uncomfortable thoughts and emotions attached to your body image and sit with them mindfully without judgement.
Researchers have found self-compassion can protect young women against negative body image outcomes. Importantly, the research has also indicated that self-compassion, particularly reducing self-judgment, isolation and attachment to painful emotions can assist in negating the relationship between fitspiration, comparison and poor body image outcomes (Seekis, 2021). Given comparison is often unintentional and automatic, using self-compassionate responding can be a productive way to deal with negative feelings attached with inadequacy. Mindful self-compassion interventions have been shown to be effective in supporting women to cultivate a self-compassionate mindset, reduce body concerns and improve positive body image and overall wellbeing. So next time you find yourself feeling flat after a good old scroll through social media, try keeping the above in the forefront of your mind and note the difference it makes!
Grace Barker recently received her Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) and completed her research thesis examining the relationship between beauty content on social media, appearance comparison, internalisation, body dysmorphic concerns, cosmetic surgery consideration and self-compassion. Grace will be continuing her research in the areas of body image and self-compassion as she commences her PhD with Griffith University in 2022.
Dr Veya Seekis
Dr Veya Seekis is a passionate researcher and lecturer at Griffith University on the Gold Coast. Veya conducts research in the areas of social, developmental, and health psychology. Her research focuses on three keys areas (a) the sociocultural influences (e.g., media, peers, family) on young peoples’ body image, (b) the objectification processes operating in young people and (c) the role that self-compassion plays in preventing negative body image as well as promoting positive body image.