By Ayelen Hamity, AnyBody Argentina team member
It's one in the morning, a Tuesday, and my face is stained with an angelic luminous blue - the reflection of my cell phone and its faithful companion - Instagram. My Instagram account is relatively chaotic in content. I follow friends and family, models, philosophy accounts, photography, feminists, accounts that teach exercise routines, how to cook, how to make desserts. . . If the only thing that remains when I die is my Instagram account, my death certificate will read 'death by hysteria'. Aside from the chaos of its content, Instagram is an application that I use quite often: before going to sleep, when I wake up, and in those 'dead' moments of the day. Honestly, I never saw it as a problem – in fact – Instagram is my voyeuristic friend: a window to the world.
One day, Google News showed me the dark side of my friend, with a heading that read:
I have no idea how much time I spend on Instagram, but this news led me to explore the application a little more closely. What effect can Instagram have on mental health, and specifically, what effect can it have on my relationship with my own body? Before I could answer those questions, I reviewed the basics:
What is Instagram?
Instagram is an application that lets you publish photos and minute-long videos with a short description, along with the option to 'see more' if you so desire. Easy to use: your thumb simply scrolls upwards, allowing you to see thousands of photos quickly without having to pay attention to the context of each publication. Instagram is the fastest-growing application worldwide, with more than 800 million global users and almost one million publications per day. Taking into account that one in four people use social media, which is considered more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes, many academics are questioning the effects this particular application can have on the mental health of its users, especially adolescents.
Instagram: 'the worst social media'
In a UK study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health, almost 1500 participants aged 14 to 24 compared Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube in relation to health and well-being. The results revealed that Instagram was the worst social network platform when it came to anxiety, depression, bullying, body dissatisfaction, and feelings of 'missing out' (aka FOMO). Researchers identified that publications on social networks generate unrealistic expectations and encourage feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem among its users, especially platforms such as Instagram in which personal photos are the primary focus of attention.
Instagram and its relationship to my body
It is not surprising that an application with such a narrow focus, where the only feedback loop is the presence or absence of ‘likes' you receive, can have an impact on how you appraise your own body, and your life in general. The question is, what kind of content is harmful? In a study conducted in Australia and the United States, Fardouly, Willburger, & Vartanian (2018) explored the association between Instagram use and women’s beliefs and concerns around their bodies. The study revealed a positive correlation between the amount of time spent on Instagram and women’s self-objectification (the process of relating to one's own body as if it were an object). It is important to clarify that these results were further dependent on the content being followed, not just the frequency of use. If the user followed models with hegemonic bodies or Instagram celebrities, it increased the probability of self-objectification.
Although Instagram models and celebrities may be well-intentioned, it can be argued that they contribute to the objectification of the female body. Stephanie Demner, an Argentine Instagram model and celebrity says that there is less pressure in contemporary society to ‘be perfect’ than was previously the case, owing to applications that allow anybody to post images of themselves, which allows its viewers to get access to a variety of different people and lifestyles. But, perhaps the problem is not an obsession with being perfect, but the perception that our bodies are objects. Objects that can be looked at and appraised by others based on their appearance and not their competencies. This raises the question: How does our relationship to our own bodies change when we relate to them as objects?
"Fitspiration": the [not so] healthy life
The most surprising and perhaps sinister finding from the study relates to "fitspiration", Instagram accounts that aim to inspire people to live healthy lifestyles through the use of motivational images and texts related to exercise and dieting. The study found that following “fitspiration” accounts had the worst effect on women, showing a correlation between “fitspiration” consumption and body dissatisfaction along with the desire to be skinny. These images of a "healthy" woman rely on the same oppressive and faulty discourse that to be healthy, you must have a specific body type (usually one which is thin). Additionally, “fitspiration” images promote a problematic narrative that ferments feelings of inferiority:
"If I can do it, you can do it, too. In fact, I'll show you how to do it".
What can we do?
Before you delete your Instagram application, I have a few suggestions:
- Love yourself more
Perhaps it sounds a bit cliché but nurturing an appreciation of your own body is one way to counteract the negative effects discussed above. Aim to accept your body as it is without giving priority to beauty standards that are oppressive, exclusionary, and misinformed social constructs. In a study of almost 300 participants, Homan and Tylka (2015) explored the factors that can mitigate the negative effects of body comparison. The study revealed self-compassion as a significant factor, and identified three important ingredients to cultivate:
- an open mind free of prejudice
- self-kindness: an understanding that we are all worthy of love and affection
- an understanding that we are all humans with imperfections, and that our failures are part of a learning process.
- Be selective
Consider the effects that certain accounts may have on your own mental health and your relationship to your body and make an informed decision. Develop an awareness of your affective reactions i.e. a sensitivity towards those accounts that make you feel good and those that make you feel lousy. Then, choose accordingly.
In a study by Slater, Varsani and Diedrichs (2017), they discovered that looking at images containing self-compassion quotes helped to facilitate body satisfaction, body appreciation, and a better mood when compared to fitness-based images. In other words, when we choose to consume images or memes that send a compassionate message, they help strengthen our relationship to our body.
- Express yourself
Enjoy the application as a tool for self-expression!
- Use it as a tool of understanding
Instagram can be seen as an archive that gives us insight into each other. Exciting studies are emerging where the application is used in productive ways. For example, Reece and Danforth (2017) explored the effectiveness of using Instagram to detect and predict depression in some of its users.
Furthermore, Dr. Becky Inkster of the University of Cambridge understands the role that Instagram can have in connecting us to the young generation. She explained: "We also have a unique opportunity to communicate with young people in their terms and in creative ways. As health professionals, we must do everything possible to understand the expressions, lexicons and terms of modern youth culture to better connect with their thoughts and feelings".
This information changed how I use Instagram. As a consumer, I want to have the knowledge to be able to choose not only what I let into my life, but also what I am affirming through my decisions. As we live in a patriarchal society with oppressive beauty expectations, I see how that same oppressive discourse can be channelled through the applications on my phone. I understand that my daily decisions (even the most basic things like deciding to follow a certain Instagram account) can be political acts, and these acts can move us towards a more inclusive society, or away from it. My decisions can bring me closer to my body or further away from it. The choice is mine.