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Social media: friend or foe for body image?

As part of our Eating Disorder Awareness Week blog series, Dr Emily Newman and Katrina Turnbull reflect upon the effects of social media on body image, one of the key research streams of the Eating Disorders and Behaviours Research Group, based here at the University of Edinburgh.


Social media is often criticised for reinforcing narrow notions of beauty and overemphasising the importance of our physical appearance, particularly on image and video-based platforms. Unlike on television or in magazines, social media content is updated constantly and is with us all the time through mobile phone apps. Additionally, user interactivity means that we can see which images are most liked, can read other people’s comments endorsing the importance of appearance, and having engaged with particular content, are presented with more of the same. While we might be aware that what we see is often advertising or not a reflection of reality, it is a natural human tendency to compare ourselves and our lifestyles with those of others.

Concerns about the effect of social media content on body image and disordered eating have led to several platforms preventing users from searching for content tagged as thinspiration (or its derivatives), which aims to encourage thinness and weight loss in viewers. However, the same messaging, that thin is desirable, appears in other guises, such as the recent ‘legging legs’ trend on TikTok. Fitspiration, content that is intended to inspire exercise and good nutrition, is a popular trend on social media and a potentially healthier alternative. However, studies indicate that it mainly focuses on how a person looks, displaying a lean, muscular body ideal to men, and a thin and ‘toned’ (e.g., visible abs and buttocks, but not highly muscular) body ideal to women, rather than any real metrics of physical fitness. Furthermore, while viewers report feeling inspired by it, this seems to come at the price of lowered mood and satisfaction with their bodies.

On the other hand, social media platforms provide their users with a level of control, giving them an opportunity to create the kind of content that they want to see and challenge ideas about ideal bodies. One of our streams of research in the Eating Disorders and Behaviours Research Group at Edinburgh is to understand better how social media might be harnessed in this way.

First, we have been exploring whether differences in fitspiration imagery may affect how people responses. For example, we found that short-term exposure to fitspiration imagery showing less thin, curvier models had positive effects on women’s mood and appearance self-esteem, in contrast to fitspiration images showing thin, toned models. However, both sets of images seemed to reduce body satisfaction in viewers, and there is further work to be done in understanding how model body size and shape might influence how viewers respond to fitspiration. 

Body positive content on social media is also a potential challenge to the perpetuation of particular appearance ideals, by showing messages intended to encourage viewers to appreciate and accept their bodies, and reject societal views of what is attractive. However, until now, research has only investigated the impact of static body positive images on users' body image. But with video-based content becoming more popular, understanding how body positive videos may impact social media users is important. Our current study using Instagram Reels identifies that after watching these Reels, participants did not experience an increase or decrease in mood or body satisfaction, and they were not overly focused on their appearance. Therefore, unlike content that promotes thin ideals, there is no marked reduction in mood and body satisfaction when viewing body positive content. 

Fashion advertising appears to have taken some positive turns. Consumers are now shown more diverse images by many fashion brands, such as Kurt Geiger and Marks and Spencer, on their websites and social media pages, which challenge our notions of how models look. Results from our studies indicate that presenting people with fashion advertising images featuring non-thin female and non-muscular ideal male models improves body image in female and male viewers respectively. Therefore, in the short term at least, presenting viewers with models who do not conform to body shape and size ideals may be beneficial for body image.  

There are many avenues still to explore in terms of how social media might promote positive body image and normalise body diversity. This includes looking at the longer term effects of viewing content, how fitness content can be used to inspire viewers to engage in exercise without negative consequences for self-image, and the specific messaging that might promote more positive body image in viewers.

To learn more about our research in the Eating Disorders and Behaviours research group, you can follow us on X: @EatingResearch


Dr Emily Newman is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at University of Edinburgh. Her research looks at people’s online behaviour, including how social media consumption is related to mental health.

Katrina Turnbull is an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation examines the effects of body positive Instagram Reels on women's body image. 


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