This week we are looking at the power of social media in influencing our perception of our bodies. Before diving in, it is important to consider that there are a lot of factors that influence one’s relationship with their body and that social media can be one of these factors. Social media is not however the sole culprit for poor body image but its has been linked to a greater culture of comparison.
Current research from a 2019 Olapic report found that 64 percent of 16 to 22 year olds follow influencers on social media. They also found that 51 percent of participants believe the content posted by other consumers is more authentic versus that posted by influencers. The study shows that by majority, brands turn to Facebook and Instagram for most of their consumer generated content, especially when trying to sell a product. Current findings show that 44 percent of content on Instagram are sponsored posts and of that, fashion is 33 percent, beauty, and food and beverage fall equally at 13 percent. These findings support why many critics are saying that we are constantly being influenced on social media, whether it is to buy something or present a certain image. Essentially, no matter how hard we might try to avoid sponsored content, if we are on social media we will be confronted with ads.
So, here are six perspectives to consider this week:
1. With great influence comes great power
What makes us, as social media users, so influenceable? Forbes recently published an article on the psychology behind ‘Influencer Marketing’, which can best be defined as a form of marketing that focuses on targeting key industry leaders to drive brand message and awareness to a specific market of consumers. According to Bradley Hoos, Chief Growth Officer at The Outloud Group, a full-service influencer marketing agency, influencers are effective in influencing us thanks to five characteristics: cultural conformity, power and control, informational social influence, personal connection and desire to help others. We are influenced because we experience aspects of the halo effect, a phenomenon known as the 'physical attractiveness stereotype' and the 'what is beautiful is good' principle. Influencers present beautifully curated depictions of their lives that we prescribe as good and try to mimic. Hoos states that we have control over who we follow and subscribe to, therefore we are able to curate the content we consume but even so this content will inevitably try to sell us products. He shares that "informational social influence is the change in opinions or behavior that occurs when we conform to people who we believe have accurate information." Influencers often take positions as experts or ‘gurus’ on a specific subject, making users often take their word as true. Fitness influencer Kayla Itsines received a huge amount of social media backlash after her expertise in health and fitness was questioned in 2016 after her ebook ‘Bikini Body Guide’ gained mass popularity. Many influencers create meaningful connections with their audience by sharing intimate personal details, photos and stories, so that users feel more connected to them and trust their advice. Influencers like Caroline Calloway, a self-proclaimed caption writer and artist, is known for making her followers feel like her friends by sharing stories of her love life and mental health. And as humans we have an innate desire to help others, so when we feel inspired by an influencer, we want to help them out by buying their promotional product or supporting their campaign. That’s why we are influenced but is the real question lies in ‘what’ we are influenced by?
2. Detox teas, weight loss supplements, and waist trainers, on my! #ad
Something controversial to consider when it comes to influencing is how influencers are advertising weight loss products on their platforms that could be potentially harmful for our bodies. So, in recent news in September 2019, Instagram announced that they would be regulating weight loss supplements and product advertising on the app for users under 18 years old. The app’s public policy manager, Emma Collins announced, “We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media.” The policy will also be imposed on Facebook as well. Body positive activist and actress, Jameela Jamil was apparently very influential in the implementation of this new policy. Jameela had been raising awareness via her I Weigh campaign about the harm of weight loss products like detox teas, ‘fat-burning’ supplements and cosmetic surgery. The campaign gained mass recognition and social engagement and celebrities like the Kardashians and Cardi B were publicly criticized for promoting detox teas that serve as glorified laxatives. Her ‘I Weigh’ movement is founded on the idea that we are all more than just a number on a scale or a number in a statistic. I Weigh is a platform for radical inclusivity. However, this is not the first time that Instagram has put its foot down on dangerous content and messaging on the app. In 2018, the company said it would start blocking hashtags that promote vaccine misinformation, but two months after that announcement, misinformation was still rampant on the platform. The app made efforts to block hashtags like #VaccinescauseAIDS, even so, the hashtag #VaccinesKill was still up on the app and appeared as a top result in a search for "vaccines" after anti-vax accounts.
Instagram started their quest to reduce the presence of negative social media influencing in 2017 by requiring product based advertisement to include the hashtag “#ad”. Instagram created a standardized format that makes it clearer to everyone when a post has been paid for by an advertiser in response to raise of paid social media influencing over the last five years. It’s clear that Instagram is trying to restrict the kind of sponsored posts that are published and make them more transparent, but will this enough to stop influencers from promoting unhealthy products?
3. Influencing for awareness, for profit, or for something else?
Some are saying that social media influencing can be used for the good by ways of promoting charitable causes and small ethical and sustainable businesses. Awareness campaigns, like #EffYourBeautyStandards by Tess Holiday, are positive forms of social media influencing where celebrities and activists alike are promoting messages of authenticity and representation. According to IDC, a global marketing intelligence firm, businesses that use social media regularly have budgets that are 84 percent larger than those who do not use social media. This increase in budget relates to the increase in exposure that social media marketing provides charitable organizations. Many large-scale non-profit organizations like Greenpeace, UNICEF, and PETA have used influencer marketing to increase campaign engagement and charitable donations. Apps like Instagram have become instrumental in widening their audiences on a relatively limited budget. In 2018, Emmy-nominated actress Millie Bobby Brown was announced as UNICEF’s newest Goodwill Ambassador and detailed that she is using her platform to help raise awareness of children’s rights and issues affecting youth, such as lack of education, safe places to play and learn, and the impact of violence, bullying and poverty. The actress regularly uses her Instagram account that houses 30.9 million followers to bring awareness to UNICEF campaigns and initiatives. So although social media can be a place where users are influenced into purchasing detox teas, it can also be a place where young people can learn how to take action and save our planet and the people on it!
4. Influencers can foot the bill
Another perspective to consider is that social media influencing is beneficial for the economy. The influencer marketing business was said to be worth 8 billion in 2019 and 15 billion dollars by 2022. Every social media platform attracts influencers to some degree, but Instagram is the gold standard for the group and currently, four in five (79%) brands predominantly use Instagram for influencer campaigns. Whilst, brands turn to Facebook only 46 percent of the time, YouTube (36%), Twitter (24%), and LinkedIn (12%), per Influencer Marketing Hub. Influencer marketing on Instagram is estimated to generate $1.7 billion in revenue this year alone. There are now a host of dedicated influencer talent agencies including Digital Brand Architects (now part of United Talent Agency), Social Zoo and Estate Five, currently representing and coaching influencers to help make their content sell. Traditional modeling agencies such as Wilhelmina and Next have begun representing digital influencers as well. However, it’s not always that glam for the influencers themselves and many aspects of influencer marketing are still undefined. Influencers aren’t always paid when they work with a brand, as commercial work is often compensated with gifts and event invitations, and wannabe influencers have taken to posting fake sponsored content in an effort to look more legitimate (and in hopes of luring in paid posts). That said, in most cases influencers can set their terms per post or per video. The co-founder of Viral Nation explains how influencers can asked to be paid as much or as little as $100,000 for posts on YouTube or Instagram. People with smaller followings, who are known as nano-influencers (ie. someone with only a couple of thousand followers that is willing to advertise for brands), can make between $30,000 and $60,000 a year. The micro-influencers (ie. someone that has 10,000 to 50,000 followers) can make anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 and celebrity influencers way more than those figures alone. It’s clear that social media influencing whether negative or positive, is not going away anytime soon and will only increase because of its clear profitability. Therefore, do we need to put in more guidelines on how social media regulates influencing or should we all just understand that Instagram and Facebook are now today’s equivalent of walking into a department store?
5. Who you follow matters
Another perspective to consider is that following celebrities, influencers and models on social media alike can affect our body image, but so can following people we know. There is more up and coming research into social media and body image, but it is still in its early stages, and most studies are correlational. This means there is no proof whether, for example, Instagram causes someone to have negative feelings about their appearance, or whether people who are concerned about their appearance are more likely to scroll through Instagram more often. That being said, using social media does appear to be correlated with body image concerns. A systematic review of 20 papers published in 2016 found that photo-based activities, like scrolling through Instagram or posting pictures of yourself, were a particular problem when it came to negative thoughts about your body. Current research suggests that who we compare ourselves to is key. “People are comparing their appearance to people in Instagram images, or whatever platform they're on, and they often judge themselves to be worse off,” says Jasmine Fardouly, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. In a survey of 227 female university students, women reported that they tend to compare their own appearance negatively with their peer group and with celebrities, but not with family members, while browsing Facebook. The comparison group that had the strongest link to body image concerns was distant peers, or acquaintances. What this suggests is that whether we are seeing an influencer promote a weight loss product or a friend in a bikini in a tropical resort, we can be negatively influenced and it can affect our relationship with our body image. A similar study confirmed that social media environments might influence adolescent girls and young women to engage in social comparison leading to feelings of inadequacy and body dissatisfaction (Alperstein, 2015). Therefore, based on the results of this study and others, negative body image concerns appear to be higher for those who internalize negative messages and images. So the important take-away here is that being selective about who you follow is an important way to take care of yourself and how you feel about your body.
6. Here a few tips and tricks to avoid negative influencing:
Whether we know it or not, we all have influence. If you even have one follower, you have influence over your peers, friends, and family. So what can we do to become proactive consumers? Delete all social media right now? No! There’s no need to take such drastic measures but it is important to reflect on what content you follow and see on social media. Many mental health experts encourage taking a mindful approach towards who you follow and what you post. I have curated a few of my favorites tips and tricks for how to avoid negative social media influencing, inspired by The Good Trade blog. Social media is a space where we should be influenced to be inspired, excited, and feel connected. And sometimes creating that space starts with unfollowing things that don’t make you feel great and that’s okay and welcome.
- Create content that you enjoy creating and sharing! Instead of just consuming what other people are putting out into the world, put energy into creating something for yourself. Share what makes you smile, things that inspire you, and create images that energize and invigorate your creative self.
- Use Instagram as a way to see friends IRL. If you build it, they will ‘gram—host a gathering at your home, your favorite pink wall, or at a nearby park and spend a few hours socializing and shooting photos of one another for your feed. Cultivate relationships with your friends and acquaintances while creating something together.
- Stop lurking. See someone post at a restaurant that you’ve been meaning to try? Ask them how it was! Reach out rather than staying silent and wondering. Even if a comment or message is just to tell someone that you love their photo, a little kindness goes a long way and can help you feel more directly connected online.
- Choose who you’re following. Try and follow a more diverse group of people who you can learn from, collaborate with or who simply inspires you. Work to follow people who might offer a different worldview or challenge your ideas about spirituality, race, sexuality, politics, feminism—you name it, there are amazing influencers speaking about topics we can all use a little more perspective on.
Want to continue the conversation about body image & social media? Check out our content throughout the week and submit your points of view about the topic here. Let's keep the conversations going!