Scrolling for body goals
The new body-positive role models taking over Instagram
On June 6th 2017, Michelle Elman posted an image of herself on Instagram. She’s wearing a sports bra, striking a pose in boxing gloves on a sunny rooftop. Rolls of fat protrude from her dimpled belly, scars from a series of medical conditions and the 15 surgeries it took to get better. They are her reminders of battles with a brain tumour, a punctured intestine, an obstructed bowel, a cyst in the brain. In her caption, the body confidence coach talks about appreciating her physicality and seizing every chance to use her body, for “boxing, dancing, paddle boarding, walking, and any other opportunity I can find to just move.”
“Gross,” @saltedking typed in the comments. “Why you got 3 bellybuttons.”
Michelle’s Instagram handle is @scarrednotscared. She created it to raise the visibility of scarred bodies, to fight shame and promote self-love. While comments like the ones above are everywhere, both online and IRL, Michelle isn’t out to battle those in particular, but the attitudes behind them, the internal voices that eat away at self confidence.
The rest of the comment section is a better place. @lunarchar_ says, “You inspire me every day. Thank you for always being a healthy voice when I can’t find my own. Thank you for giving me
new perspectives. You’re awesome.” “OMG! @scarrednotscared , you are my heroine!!!! It’s so important to bring gratitude into each day! Keep being you! Xxxx”, said @lucyddreamer.
On Instagram, the conversation around challenging the beauty status quo has reached a thunderous roar. Women have seized every platform available to celebrate their unique bodies and offer support to others, but as the most exclusively visual platform, Instagram has struck a certain nerve. What was once just a group of teenage girls in the ‘90s seeking more affirming attitudes towards body image has since grown into a phenomenon, driven by social media. Two of the cause’s most famous advocates, plus-size models Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham, are regularly featured on magazine covers and in advertising campaigns. While they’re still vastly outnumbered by their skinny counterparts, these women have an overwhelming presence on social media, where they speak about freedom and choice alongside wellbeing and self-compassion. And as body positivity continues to flourish, women on the internet are feeling empowered to consolidate their resistance against all the ways they feel ‘less than’. It’s not just about size. From disability to body hair to cystic acne, women are standing up and counting themselves beautiful to tens of thousands of followers.
“I think that highly visible role models are a good thing in general,” says Dr. Chua Sook Ning, a Malaysian academic and clinical psychologist at National Institute of Education under the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “This movement is positive in the sense that it creates a space for everyone to find their individuality.” But that visibility is accompanied by effects that aren’t so clear cut. “I understand that all of [these Instagram advocates] have an intention to be helpful and to inspire others. But because of the ease and visibility of the internet, conflicting messages are espoused, making it more difficult for the consumer to find beneficial, sound messages.”
For many women in Malaysia, navigating body insecurities within the maze of real life social expectations can be daunting, especially as family members are often the first to say hurtful things. “My mother always comments on my size,” says Alice, a journalist. “I also used to have terrible skin when I was younger, and she would make lessthan-nice remarks even though we were actively trying to fix it.”
Unfortunately, this is extremely common. “How do you educate your friends and family about body diversity without coming across as overly sensitive? I frequently hear this concern,” says Dr Chua. For these women, Instagram may be one of the few places where supportive, diverse role models exist. And even there, while the cluster communities of body acceptance are growing in size and influence, mainstream ideas are still very much intact, visible and lauded on the platform. Add to that the evidence linking body image issues and social media, like the 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine that reported that social media users who spend the most time scrolling through their feeds are twice as likely to suffer from body image issues, and that the most frequent users are over twoand-a-half times as likely to report eating and body image concerns. Scottish charity The Royal Society for Public Health’s report on social media found that Instagram is the worst platform for mental health among young people. The 2017 survey had 1,500 people rate how each of the social media platforms they use impact health and wellbeing-related issues, among them depression, self-identity and body image. Instagram had the lowest score over Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter.
So how do we use social media in ways that boost our confidence instead of draining it? Here’s one: instead of a constant expectation of self love, “body neutrality” means recognising that your body is the way it is, without the need to feel 100 per cent secure in your own skin. After all, it’s impossible to radiate confidence at all times, and this way, your mind is allowed to focus on other aspects of life. Experts are on the fence about this approach, but exponents say it’s a stepping stone towards full body positivity.
“A healthy body goal must include physical and mental health,” Dr Chua says. “So we can expose ourselves to as many diverse positive role models as possible and not just physical beauty, but seeing beauty in actions, in behaviours and in thought.” Looking inwards is key. “Putting someone on a pedestal never works out in the long run. But if we pick out traits like confidence, compassion, commitment and openness, we can shape ourselves to have those traits and be authentically and uniquely us.”
Women are standing up and counting themselves beautiful to tens of thousands of followers.