Body shaming in the media is nothing new, but it’s now more pervasive than ever. Charlotte Ricca looks at the latest accusations against Facebook-owned Instagram, but also explores magazine media’s historic influence on women.

When I heard Facebook’s revelation that Instagram negatively effects body image issues for one in three teen girls, my initial thought was ‘so what?’. The fact that social media is a bad influence on young women is nothing new. I can confirm it’s also pretty bad for women in the 40s and above. 

What is really shocking, however, is that Facebook’s top executives kept this research a secret. Worse still, they lied about it. Time and time again. The tech giant has been running in-depth studies on the impact of Instagram for more than three years, but every time they were asked about its effect on teens, executives have played down the app’s negative effects. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal, who broke the story, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the research they have seen shows that using social apps can have positive effects on wellbeing, while Instagram head Adam Mosseri said the app’s effects on teen mental health is likely to be “quite small”.

But then the truth came out. I’m sure you read the figures, but in case you need reminding: 32% of teen girls said that when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. They also blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression, with 13% of British teens experiencing suicidal thoughts, blaming their feelings on the app. The research, which includes focus groups, online surveys and diary studies, concluded that body-image issues for teenage girls were worse on Instagram than other social media platforms, because it is engineered towards greater “social comparison”. 

As Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Comparison is the thief of joy”. But this is what Instagram has built its empire on; comparing our body/lives/cooking/partners/kids/dogs/job/friends (*delete as applicable) with the perfect pictures we mindlessly and endlessly scroll through. Not only that, the research suggested that Instagram’s Explore page pushes young users into viewing harmful content. “Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” March 2020 internal research states.

Body shaming is nothing new

As an adult I know most of what I see on Instagram is fake. But it’s still hard to keep perspective and not get sucked in. It’s even harder for teenage girls, which I have seen first-hand, as the mother of a 14-year-old. Facebook’s findings back this up, as teens told researchers they felt “addicted” to Instagram and wanted to spend less time on the app, but didn’t have the self-control. 

Obviously, I take responsibly for the amount of time my daughter spends online, and she has time limits set on her phone. But what is Facebook doing with these findings? So far it seems the only plans in place are to launch Instagram for under-13s. Comparisons have been made to the big tobacco companies who targeted underage smokers, while hiding the dangerous effects of smoking. As Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, stated: 

“If you believe that R.J. Reynolds should have been more truthful about the link between smoking and lung cancer, then you should probably believe that Facebook should be more upfront about links to depression among teen girls.” 

Yes, we probably should. But the fact is, body shaming in the media is nothing new. It’s just more pervasive now that it’s online. In the 90s magazines were accused of creating ‘heroin chic’ – glamourising those sharp cheek bones and even sharper hip bones, proudly sported by the likes of cover girl favourite, Kate Moss. Research in 1994 found that the more women consume media featuring images of the ‘thin ideal’, the more likely they are to report characteristics in line with disordered eating.

And this is still going on. A more recent study in 2016 found that exposure to fashion magazines, such as Elle, Vogue and InStyle, is correlated with negative moods and higher body dissatisfaction. 

These days we have Instagram filters perfecting our looks, but back then it was just photoshop that women had to contend with. As Cindy Crawford once famously said: “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford!” Other famous faces have called out magazines for over photoshopping, from Kate Winslet in 2003 who said GQ reduced the size of her legs by about a third, to Kerry Washington who said she didn’t recognise her face on the cover of AdWeek in 2016. We are so used to photos being edited, that when an un-photoshopped image of the Cindy Crawford was leaked on Twitter, revealing stretch marks, cellulite and wrinkles, it went viral. 

Things are starting to change. Slowly. Ad campaigns such Dove’s Real Beauty are using real women, with real, un-photoshopped bodies. Launched back in 2004, the campaign’s impact extends beyond beauty equality, it also makes good business sense. Sales for Dove rose from £1.8bn to £2.9bn in the campaign’s first ten years. Dove was also one of the first major brands to call out excessive Photoshop use, back in 2006, with the viral video, Evolution. Watching this literally made my jaw drop. But still photoshopping continues. 

One ‘real’ cover isn’t enough

A few magazines have make conscious choices to feature ‘real’ women – or at least women of different shapes and sizes. Plus-size model Tess Holliday appeared on the front cover of Cosmopolitan in 2018, while in 2016 British Vogue’s November issue used academics and businesswomen instead of models on its fashion pages for the first time. However, it still put Emily Blunt on the cover, who joked at the time: “It took three hours of hair and makeup to get me looking this real!”

One publisher that does seem to be trying to make a difference is Hearst, who launched Project Body Love in October 2020. The campaign aims to change the way women think, feel and speak about their bodies, and is the biggest Hearst-wide content programme.  The campaign so far, from Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Red, Good Housekeeping and ELLE, includes more than 90 print pages, 45 online articles, 15 podcast episodes and 20 videos. Research shows it has helped bolster female body confidence by 42%.

Claire Sanderson, Women’s Health Editor-In-Chief said: “As a magazine Editor, I feel a lot of responsibility in shifting the dial and getting women to fall in love with their bodies again. Project Body Love is our way of re-building confidence and ensuring we constantly use reaffirming positive language across our magazine and website.”

Their research may have shown it helped boost body confidence. But I can’t help think the onus to feel confident is still very much on women – and not on the media that peddles these unrealistic images that make us doubt ourselves in the first place. Instead of changing the way we think, feel and speak about our bodies, how about magazines change the way they portray women’s bodies? So instead of 90 print pages or 45 online articles, why not double that? Or triple it?

Just as Facebook needs to take responsibility for the negative effect on Instagram on teenage girls – and make real changes to the platform – magazines need to make real, lasting changes to their covers and content. Not just the occasional, token ‘fat’ girl on the cover, or body positivity article.

Until that time all we can do is educate and inspire our daughters to love themselves. Even if the media tells them otherwise. To quote a great response to a billboard advert in London, asking if women were beach body ready? Fuck off.

Amen to that.

Charlotte Ricca is a Journalist, Podcaster, Presenter and Editor, with a passion for quality content. She has written extensively about media and technology for major titles, including the Guardian and the Independent. She is a regular contributor to the iPaper and writes content for a range of brands.

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