How media affects women's self-esteem
By Alecsa Dobrin.
Photographs by Alexia Magiru.
Social media is an important part of our day to day life. We use it to read the news, to keep up with our favorite celebrities, to socialize with our friends, and so much more beyond just that. It has something for everyone, from dessert recipes and funny videos of pets to informative posts about social justice: and that is why it holds such an important place in today's society.
As being an "influencer" or a content creator for a living becomes more and more common, many people use social media to inspire and determine others to want to live or look a certain way. Most of us have seen pictures of celebrities and models and told ourselves that we should try to conform to the ideal standards of beauty, to be more like them basically, in order to "fit in".
In a day and age when social media is slowly taking over all of our lives, Instagram models and influencers have more and more impact on their followers. It's very common that a girl looks at an influencer's picture, one that has been carefully and patiently edited to look as good as possible, wondering why she doesn’t look like that no matter how many diets or work-out routines she follows. Why her skin isn't flawless, why her legs aren't shiny and toned, why she has cellulite or a few extra pounds. Celebrities, who have personal trainers and chefs, at-home gyms, and dozens of staff members, promote all these "miracle" diet products that allegedly make you look just like them when in reality, their endless paid promotions have nothing to do with their looks.
In a 2017 study, 160 female undergraduate students were assigned to either view “fitspiration” pictures or self-compassion posts on Instagram. As it was expected, the women who viewed self-compassion quotes had a kinder attitude towards their body image and showed more self-appreciation and gentleness, while the ones who viewed fitspiration posts had less self-esteem and an over-all worse attitude towards their own bodies. This quite obviously only goes to prove the age-old hunch that posts that promote and show fit women have far more of a negative impact on viewers, whereas quotes meant to empower and determine them to love their bodies as they boost women's confidence and self-compassion in a way that a picture-perfect manicured post could never.
Both men and women struggle with acceptance when it comes to their bodies, but a study conducted by Florida House Experience on 1,000 men and women shows that 87.73% of women compare themselves to images they find on social media while only 65.37% of men do this. In most cases, the comparison is unfavorable for both genders. The same study shows that social media is the main factor that impacts the way women view their bodies, with the portrayal of women in movies and TV shows following close behind on the second spot.
This phenomenon isn't new. Ever since the '50s, when the entertainment industry started to flourish, women looked up to actresses, models, beauty pageant contestants and their looks became the "goals" every woman wanted to achieve. Multiple studies recorded the decreasing weight of influential women and, at the same time, the increasing weight of American and Canadian women, thus creating a big discrepancy between the ideal beauty standards and the reality most women were facing. The media played a big part in the advertisement of unreal body standards for women, as magazines, television shows, and any other entertainment sources were promoting diet foods and products claiming to be miracle-workers that would help women become their dream selves in no more than a few weeks. In comparison to men's magazines, women's contained 10.5% more diet-centered advertisements.
Many argue that this way, the media has constantly played a significant role in ensuring the patriarchy doesn’t stop flourishing any time soon, as maintaining beauty standards alive disempowers women and guarantees that society continues to look down on them and their many “imperfections”. Additionally, the media plays an even bigger part in securing the multi-billion dollar beauty industry. The more women feel insecure and unhappy about their body image, the more they feel the need to buy what is advertised as "magical" solutions to all their beauty-related problems: and so, the beauty industry continues to profit off their insecurities for as long as it can.
Cyberbullying is also a very important factor when it comes to the way social media affects girls' mental health. Studies show that girls are three times more likely to be victims of cyberbullying. Not only that, but it is even far more likely that girls bully each other. The reasons behind that aren't specified, yet other studies show that bullying tends to happen when the aggressor is facing their own confidence issues, which creates a vicious cycle that only proves the fact that girls should be empowered from a young age, rather than torn down and pitied against each other. Other reasons for bullying are the need to feel in power, and social prejudice, which all circle back to the lack of empowerment young women receive.
Now let's talk about the way women are portrayed in movies and TV shows. Many of the female characters in movies tend to always be categorized into stereotypes, such as the overly sexual, very skinny girl who is mostly portrayed as stupid and shallow, the family-oriented religious conservative who only takes care of the children and cooks for her husband, or the helpless girl who needs a man to save her, often known as The Cinderella Complex. While arguably more and more movies feature a strong female lead, there are still way too many that show women as secondary characters, not important to the plot and mostly just the romantic interest. That leads young girls everywhere to believe that a woman's life is centered around anyone but her and that her only job is to find her stereotype and not stray too far away from it, thus constantly minimizing their sense of self-worth.
While the media holds an important place in today's society and clearly also has many perks, like the fact that it gives many people a platform to educate themselves and others, we still have to fight against the beauty standards it imposes on us. We are taking steps towards a more accepting future, but we still have quite the long way to go. Once we will be able to stop caring so much about beauty and looks, and we start empowering girls from a young age, maybe self-love, compassion, and confidence will become a normal occurrence rather than a goal we all strive to achieve.