How social media kills self-esteem.
“THEY END UP CONFORMING EVEN MORE TO GENDER STEREOTYPES”
Back in about 1999, I watched a programme about women’s body hair. The premise was simple: take four women – two with a typical Western relationship with body hair and two with extreme body hair phobias – and ask them to stop shaving/ plucking/waxing/bleaching for three weeks. The four women fell apart, just because they couldn’t use a razor.
This really got up my nose, and not because the scent of passionate, idealistic feminism was still clinging to me like stale patchouli after years at an ardently liberal undergraduate university. No, I was annoyed because I am irritated by most coverage of women’s bodies in the mass media. I’m at peak pop culture despair right now because we’ve just been bombarded with yet another season of the size zero debate, courtesy of London Fashion Week. This is not a new debate, but things have changed since I glared at the telly in my shared Glasgow flat in 1999. Back then, people compared themselves to individuals seen on TV or in magazines. Now, if we use social media, we operate in a world in which we’re overwhelmed by the better versions of ourselves that we project into the digital realm. In extreme cases, people decorate their bedrooms to look good on Instagram, or get ‘selfie surgery’.
For the women in the body hair experiment, their biggest concern was what their partners would say. Now, the worry is what random strangers will think. The aim in a hyper-visual culture is to get as many likes as possible, and so people will put themselves in front of huge potential audiences. They don’t do it to get negative feedback, and so end up conforming even more to gender stereotypes and certain ideas about how people should look.
A study published in Computers In Human Behavior in May 2018 surveyed 523 youngsters aged between 11 and 16 about how much they used highly visual social media. Those who spent more than two hours per day online had more body image problems than those who didn’t log on for as long. They could, of course, be turning to social media because they already have body image concerns, but the things they see there reinforce a particular kind of beauty, and that doesn’t help them adjust to their personal fears. And even if that particular kind of beauty is clearly retouched or Photoshopped, it’s those images that become a source of comparison.
This isn’t just a teenage thing, either. In June this year, a study of people aged 17 to 30 published in Sex Roles found that looking at images of really fit people posing in a really fit way, and doing really fit things (just search for #fitspo or #fitspiration to see what I’m talking about) made their participants feel bad about themselves and put them in a rotten mood. So don’t do it. Looking at people doing fitness isn’t aspirational; it just makes you miserable.
Body positive people use the same platform as the #fitspo folks to celebrate our lumpy, many coloured differences. But it turns out that this isn’t a solution. I’ve had a longstanding discussion with my husband about the merits of Gok Wan’s series How To Look Good Naked. I’ve described it as empowering and a great step in focusing on the beauty inside. My husband has been more dismissive. And now, I’m beginning to agree: it seems that any attention we pay to body image makes us aware of what we have and have not, and makes the body the fulcrum of our self-esteem. What if, instead, we found out what we’re really good at? What if we celebrated what gets us up in the morning?
Perhaps then, we’ll be able to relieve ourselves of all that body loathing. Hairy, or not.