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Social Media and Body Image: A Complicated Relationship

If you regularly use social media such as Facebook and Instagram, you will have noticed posts plugging fitness by way of body-conscious photos and memes meant to get people moving. For example: a picture of a gorgeous bikini-clad woman with the caption, “Today I will love myself enough to exercise.”

However, evidence that this type of messaging actually works is anecdotal. Does the sight of a ripped body on social media motivate people to pursue health? Does it help clients feel great about their bodies? New research suggests the opposite: Spending time on Facebook could lead to negative body image and even disordered eating (Eckler, Kalyango & Paasch 2014; Mabe, Forney & Keel 2014; Smith, Hames & Joiner 2013).

Through expert commentary and the latest research findings, this article sheds light on the complicated relationship between social media and body image, particularly as it pertains to health and fitness promotion. Read on to gain a deeper understanding of how social media may influence a client’s body image—and perhaps your own.

“Fitspo”: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

The stream of fitness-related content on social media is constant, and it comes from both the fitness industry and consumers. Search #fitspo on Tagboard.com—a website hub that collects posts sharing a common hashtag across major social networks—and you’ll find numerous fitspo-tagged posts every hour. Of course, fitspo is just one instance of how people collate fitness content. There are lots of similar hashtags in circulation: #fitness, #instafit, #fitfam, #fitlife, #noexcuses and plenty more. For simplicity’s sake, this article uses fitspo to describe a range of fitness images and messages. As a point of interest, Instagram has banned the similar-sounding name thinspo as a searchable tag. Thinspo is associated with promoting disordered eating,
extreme thinness and self-harm (Hasan 2012; Instagram 2012).

Regardless of the hashtag, you’ll see body-positive posts, inspiring images, questionable memes, average-looking folks and beautiful bodies. The exact same image or message about health and fitness might be motivating to some and a turnoff for others. For example, consider this often-shared meme: “Sweat is fat crying.” Is it funny? Harmless? Harmful? Motivating? Ignorant? Fitness professionals already know that you can’t please everyone all the time. But you can have an acute sense of your own values and be attuned to what your target market likes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, says Lisa Johnson, a personal trainer, fitness blogger and owner of Modern PilatesTM in Brookline, Massachusetts, who writes about fitspo and dispels fitness myths on her blog. “A message that resonates with one person won’t resonate with another,” she says. “I’m a 40-something fitness pro. If I did a fitspo, I doubt a 20-something would care much. But my own peers might find it inspiring. I think as long as the words are positive and not extreme, it can have a purpose. When phrases start supporting disordered thinking, there’s a real problem.”

Bri Wilson, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Koru Personal Training in Victoria, British Columbia, believes that fitspo can be positive when done in a nonobjectifying way. “I don’t feel particularly inspired to hit the gym when I see a picture of someone’s abs next to an inspirational quote about fitness,” she says. “I feel inspired when I see action shots of trail runners during an ultramarathon or women deadlifting 300 pounds, unfiltered and unposed.”

Sometimes the fitspo issue is less about showing off an attractive, fit body and more abouthow it’s done. “While I’m no prude, I think that pictures of individuals wearing super-tight, revealing clothing can send the wrong message,” says Ryan Halvorson, contributing editor for IDEA publications and director of team training at Bird Rock Fit in La Jolla, California. “Fitspo doesn’t have to be sexualized to be inspiring. I believe those images that promote the other benefits of fitness, like improvements in strength and endurance, are most helpful.”

Think of your audience and the reactions you hope to elicit. For example, female trainers and instructors from the Millennial generation who market their products and services on social media to peers and teens may want to consider the results of an Oregon State University study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Fifty-eight adolescent girls, aged 13–18, and 60 young adult women, aged 17–25, were randomly assigned to look at one of two mock Facebook profiles of the same 20-year-old woman, “Amanda Johnson.” One showed a sexualized profile photo—Amanda wearing a low-cut dress with a slit up one leg and a visible garter belt—while the other presented a nonsexualized photo—Amanda in jeans,T-shirt and scarf. All other content on the profile was the same. Subjects rated the sexualized version of Amanda as less physically and socially attractive, and less competent to perform tasks (Daniels & Zurbriggen 2014). Not exactly the perception you’d want if you were combing social media for clients.

These results bring up a salient point about body image for men and women of all ages: Pushing bare-all, body-conscious imagery on social media has the potential to negatively affect both the viewer and the poster. “I can certainly understand why people might want to post photos showing their fit bodies,” says Elizabeth Daniels, PhD, coauthor of the study cited above and assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, “but I think this practice can be problematic if we tie our self-worth to owning that fit body. Injury or life events may intervene. If we’ve tied our self-worth to a fit body, we risk feeling poorly about ourselves and our bodies if we can’t maintain that fitness.”

New Media, Same Unrealistic Body Image Standards?

Images and messages that link fitness and appearance have always been around—in magazines and print ads, on television and websites, and now, on social media. The difference is, with social media you no longer need a big advertising budget to get your message across—just log on and start posting. The medium is more grass-roots; but the messages aren’t any more benign.

Research tells us that exposure to unrealistic standards of female beauty in traditional media, e.g., very thin models in fashion magazines, leads to negative body image for women (Grabe, Ward & Hyde 2008). Recent research out of Boise State University, in Boise, Idaho, looked at the media’s influence on muscularity and the internalization of body ideals in men and women. Published in Eating Behaviors, the study showed that drive for muscularity in men was related to watching image-focused television and reading men’s health magazines; the same drive in women was associated with total hours spent viewing “sports-related, image-focused, and entertainment television” (Cramblitt & Pritchard 2013).

What about social media’s influence? Presumably fitspo posts show “real” men and women (some of whom just happen to be quite cut) enjoying the “real” results of working out. That sounds nice, but it’s often not what’s going on. “I believe the majority of the fitspo images posted on social media are no different than what we see in traditional media,” says Wilson. “Many are filtered, Photoshopped and altered in some way, including how the person is posed and the angle of the camera. Any time I see an obviously posed fitspo photo, where the lighting is just right and the person is posed to show off her physical assets, I wonder how many pictures they took until they decided it was good enough to post.”

“I think it’s important for people to realize that what their friends post on Facebook may not be a completely accurate representation of what is really going on,” says April Smith, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her research includes studies on body image, disordered eating and Facebook usage. “People have a tendency to post only the best information about themselves. Further, every photo app has filters [that can] touch up images, allowing people to post only the best-looking photos. All of this can lead us to inaccurately assume that the people in our lives are doing better, and looking better, than potentially they really are.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off your best self on social media. However, intention is important. As fitness professionals, our goal is to inspire—not shame—people. Using exercise to elevate body image can be motivating. But striving for an Instagram-filtered version of physical perfection is likely discouraging for a lot of clients.

“I’m all for showing and sharing body change progress because I think it helps those doing the sharing to stay accountable,” says Halvorson. “I believe that this type of honest sharing—where the pictures have not been doctored—can be helpful for other individuals who are following a similar path. However, I find that images of perfect bodies can be as off-putting as what we see in consumer publications. Individuals who struggle with body change might see these images of perfection as the end goal. But when people see themselves so far removed from that end goal, often the response is to give up or to engage in dangerous tactics to change their bodies.”

Traditional pre-social-media marketing relies on the premise that (a narrowly defined version of) beauty sells. But what works in old-school advertising may not translate smoothly to the casual culture of fickle social media users. “I don’t even register the over air-brushed, sculpted bodies as real anymore,” says Johnson. “They just fade into the background like so much noise. The real people, with real sweaty smiles—I love those. They’ve gotten me off the couch once or twice to get my own workout in. Social media streams are self-selected, so when you see your neighbor or friend working out, you’ll connect more strongly with that person and his or her efforts.”

However, keeping tabs on a neighbor or friend via social media can be problematic for those who already struggle with
body image. That’s because it feels especially natural to compare yourself to a neighbor, friend—or fitness professional—who is looking fit and fabulous on Facebook. With traditional media, we know it’s all Photoshopped, so it’s easier to take what we see with a grain of salt.

“Social media hits closer to home,” Wilson points out. “Many of the images we see posted on social media are of friends or people we may have relationships with, online or otherwise. Whereas we might perceive images in magazines to be touched up and altered, we might not view images on social media in that same way. We view them as more real, and therefore we’re more likely to compare ourselves to what we see.”

These body comparisons may run deeper if that neighbor, friend or fitness professional posts egregious mixed messages about health and fitness. Says Halvorson: “I’ve witnessed instances in which someone posts a shot of their chiseled body with comments such as, ‘Fat day, bloated,’ or ‘Time for a diet,’ for example. What kind of message does that send to a follower?” As it turns out—not good. Studies show that social media usage can magnify body image concerns and disordered eating in some followers—and even in the people who are posting.

What the Research Says

Academic studies on social media and body image are fairly new, but enough research exists for a noticeable pattern to emerge: Time spent on social media can exacerbate poor body image and/ or disordered eating. One caveat: Social sites appear to be the innocent bystander in all of this. “When we see negative effects stemming from social media, we think it may be related more to how people are using the sites, rather than indicating that there’s something inherently wrong with social media sites,” says Smith. Two of her recent studies examine the correlation between women’s Facebook usage and body dissatisfaction (Smith, Hames & Joiner 2013; Hummel & Smith in press).

“In our first study [Smith, Hames & Joiner 2013],” says Smith, “we found that college women who had a strong tendency to engage in what we call ‘maladaptive Facebook use’— writing negative things about themselves and/or comparing themselves to others based on what others posted to Facebook— experienced an increase in body dissatisfaction and binge eating episodes a month later.

“We define maladaptive Facebook usage as the tendency to seek social evaluations and/or engage in social comparisons via Facebook,” Smith explains. “With respect to seeking social evaluations, this includes a tendency to write negative things about oneself, like ‘Can’t believe I just ate a whole bag of M&M’s,’ to see how others respond.

“Engaging in social comparisons refers to the tendency to read others’ status updates and look at their pictures, and then make a judgment about how you’re doing (or looking) compared to how others are doing (or looking). For instance, maybe you look at a friend’s picture and notice she has lost weight, and then you think about how you’ve recently gained a couple of pounds,” says Smith. This study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, provides evidence that seeking evaluations and/or making comparisons on Facebook may trigger feelings of dissatisfaction about appearance and body image (Smith, Hames & Joiner 2013).

A second study (Hummel & Smith in press), led by graduate student Alexandra Hummel and (at press time) slated for publication in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found that subjects—185 college-aged men and women—who received negative comments in response to personally revealing status updates on Facebook reported increases in disordered eating 4 weeks later (Hummel & Smith in press). A fitness-related example of a personally revealing status update might be, “I’m off to the gym. I’ve got to lose all this belly fat before my beach vacation.” Subsequent comments from Facebook friends would be considered negative if they reinforced the user’s belief that he or she needed to lose belly fat.

“Taken together,” says Smith, “we think [these two studies] suggest that using Facebook to engage in social comparisons and evaluations may increase body dissatisfaction, which could make people more vulnerable to developing disordered eating.”

Other research on body image and social media has yielded similar results. In 2012, The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Towson, Maryland, commissioned an online survey about Facebook’s impact on body image. Survey respondents were aged 16-40 and lived across the United States. Sixty-seven percent were female, 33% male. Fifty-one percent of the 600 Facebook users surveyed reported that seeing photos of themselves or others on Facebook made them feel more conscious of their bodies and weight; 44% said they wished they had the same body or weight as a friend shown in Facebook photos.

Research conducted at the University of Toledo, Ohio, found that subjects rated their self-evaluations and self-esteem lower when viewing another person’s Facebook profile containing evidence of healthy habits that the subject perceived to be greater than his or her own, i.e., an upward comparison (Vogel et al. 2014).

A joint study presented last May at the 64th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in Seattle used Social Comparison Theory to examine the relationship between Facebook usage and body image among 881 college women in the American Midwest. Social Comparison Theory states that people evaluate their own abilities and worth relative to other people. For example, a person might ask how his or her physique stacks up against a friend’s.

Not surprisingly, the international team of researchers— from Ohio University, the University of Iowa and the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland—found that time spent on Facebook predicted more body comparisons among all subjects. For those who reported wanting to lose weight, more time on Facebook—looking at written content and images as well as other activities—was associated with more attention to physical appearance and negative body image. There was no correlation for women who did not report wanting to lose weight (Eckler, Kalyango & Paasch 2014).

Petya Eckler, PhD, one of the authors of that study and a lecturer in journalism at the University of Strathclyde, says,
“Our overall conclusion was that Facebook intensifies women’s comparisons to others, and that may be one of the mechanisms through which more time on Facebook relates to poorer body image among women who want to lose weight.” Incidentally, Facebook reports that the average American spends 40 minutes per day on the site (Constine 2014).

In the fitness industry, we know that millions of clients and prospects report wanting to lose weight. What can we extrapolate from the research results here? Fitspo or no? Memes? Before-and-after photos? Gorgeous bikini shots?

“As our study shows,” says Eckler, “this type of social media usage may be dangerous for some women, specifically those who want to lose weight, as their body image may suffer the more time they spend on these platforms. While we did not study the effects of before/after fit photos, our more general variable ‘time on Facebook’ covers [this] and any other content that women see there. Therefore, it is even more troublesome. As we know, poor body image is often a precursor to disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food, exercise and generally one’s body.”

For a closer look at how social media and body image might affect men, see the sidebar “Body Image and Fitspo: The Male Perspective.”

Managing Health and Fitness Promotion on Social Media

Both fitness pros and people outside the industry currently drive fitspo messaging. Some of it promotes positive body image through sensible fitness practices; some of it perpetuates body dissatisfaction and archaic ideas about exercise. As a community of conscientious professionals, we can do our part to elevate the fitness-related content that’s peppered across social networks.

Using common sense and instinct helps differentiate between messages that foster healthy relationships with fitness and body image and those that could be distressing to prospects and clients. And, yes, what works for one audience may not work for another. See the sidebar “Positive Body Image Posting Guide” for guidance and questions to ask when deciding what to post based on your goals and target market. Additionally, you can make careful choices about what hashtag categories you want your posts to land in, making sure the tags are consistent with your content/ marketing strategy, fitness philosophy and the story you want to tell. IDEA often uses the #inspiringfitness hashtag.

Being sensitive to body image on social media isn’t about dismissing the fact that our business is built around the physical in many ways. But in 2015 perhaps it’s time to move beyond simplistic body-conscious images. That doesn’t mean never posting physique shots. Just be clear on why and how you’re doing it.

“I would love to see [people use] more realistic body types and fewer posed shots. Action shots of real people and athletes competing or training are much more inspirational,” says Wilson. “It’s fine to be proud of your body and show it off, but we always see the end product, and not the hard work it took to get there. I think a balance of both kinds of images would help make fitness much more positive, inclusive and inviting for the majority of people.”

Halvorson sums it up nicely. “Instead of solely focusing on aesthetics, what about promoting strength, health, empowerment and quality of life? I love pictures that feature people smiling postworkout. I know sex sells, but so do stories about real people who have overcome struggle to transform themselves both inside and out. I also think it’s time to eliminate negative fitspo imagery. I can’t stand those images of the overweight guy on the couch with a corresponding comment like, ‘Don’t be this guy.’ That may inspire some people to become more active, but most overweight people I know find that type of imagery demeaning and discouraging,” he says.

We all have options about which accounts we follow and engage with, what hashtags we use, and the messages we send. Making exercisers and nonexercisers feel welcome and accepted through our content and engagement choices only helps us grow as an industry, one that’s taken seriously on social media and in the eyes of our prospects and clients.

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