Aleks Kro­to­ski

How so­cial me­dia kills self-es­teem.

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS - Aleks Kro­to­ski is a so­cial psy­chol­o­gist, broad­caster and jour­nal­ist. She presents BBC Ra­dio 4’s Dig­i­tal Hu­man.


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.

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