Be Body Kind - Social Media and Body Confidence
By Gabby Willis
From the ages of fifteen to nineteen, years that should have been the most fun and exciting of my life, I suffered with anorexia.
Shadowed by my eating disorder, I could not enjoy partying with friends, my journey to university (and my life) was seriously at risk, and when I got to Sheffield Hallam my first year passed by in a blur of anxiety.
Now in recovery, I am currently thriving as a journalism student and women’s rights activist. Currently, I am on work experience at HR Media and couldn’t be happier with where my life is going.
Each year The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) runs Mental Health Awareness week in May. This year the campaign’s theme is Body Image with the hashtag #BeBodyKind.
This week, MHF have released a report on body image, and one of the report’s main focuses is the negative affect that social media can have on body confidence.
According to the report, just over one in five adults (22%) and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image. 32% of adults said they negatively compare themselves to others based on body image.
The report argues that effective regulation of how body image is portrayed is needed, with social media companies taking a new stance on their relationships with public health and social responsibility to their users.
Statistics show that 97% of social advertisers chose Facebook as their most useful social media platform. Since the platform has over 2 billion active users, it’s no surprise that The Mental Health Foundation is calling for active regulation of advertisements from high risk industries (such as cosmetics brands, plastic surgery companies, and weight loss services) shown on social media. They say that codes of practice should be introduced to commit both businesses and social media companies to “ensuring that the content they promote to users – through advertising, trending and viral content, and algorithmic targeting does not exacerbate body concerns.”
In fact, the government has recommended that in the future a dedicated regulator for online platforms hosting user generated content should be formed, after the publication of their Online Harms white paper.
Existing regulations from the advertising standards agency (ASA) and their social responsibility code prevent advertisers from using models in a way that makes them look unhealthily thin or from presenting unhealthy body images as aspirational. This is different to a previously used BMI based approach, as it captures the use of photo editing and licensing too.
Scholars and researchers have long been making the moral case for banning the “airbrush”, alongside social media influencers and bloggers. Whilst photo editing is often used to enhance artistic skill, it’s damaging sides are also evident.
It is time for businesses, advertisers and social media platforms to come together in the growing movement to destigmatise mental health problems and look out for others. Body image issues not only lead to eating disorder, anxiety, depression and more, but they also affect employees and customers’ power to purchase and work.
Scholar Babatunde Valentine Onabajo says “By refraining from using the airbrush on promotional material and magazine covers, businesses can help combat depression, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and the low self-esteem that afflicts many people today, especially teenagers. It is arguably one of the most perfect forms of corporate social responsibility”.
Personally, I can see both the good and bad sides of social media when it comes to their influences on mental health and body confidence.
When I was twenty and finally fully into recovery, I started a blog and Instagram account focusing on body positivity. Through this, I met other influencers and bloggers on similar journeys, and became part of The Body Confidence revolution. I received messaged from followers saying that my online honesty with my pictures and writing had helped them in ways I wish I has been helped when I first became ill.
When I joined Facebook ten years ago aged 13, nobody could foresee how far social media would come in the following decade. I often wonder if back then social media had a part to play in the route my mental health took, but I honestly don’t believe that it was anywhere near as bad then as it is now.
Previously, photoshopped magazines were all we had to worry about when consuming media. Now that we spend hours a day scrolling through social media, we are constantly bombarded with adverts for “skinny teas” and facetuning apps. Mix these with impressionable minds and you have a cocktail for disaster that somebody should be regulating.
I welcome the recommendations from The Mental Health foundation’s report with open arms and really hope that they are adopted into wider use. It’s time for social media outlets and all businesses to sit up and take notice of their responsibility to protect vulnerable consumers from harm.