We are social and it is impossible to deny. Today social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction. It is enough to look around us on the TV, on the street or in class to spot the turned down gaze; literally, people are always staring at their phones. But what does it mean? What are the reasons why we continue to scroll that Facebook wall looking for something posted by an old classmate or the event our friend attended Saturday night? What are the consequences of these actions on the human mind? And who are the subjects most affected by them?
These are just some of the questions I asked myself during the length of my master’s project. I am Ilaria Celata and I recently graduated in Ma Graphic Branding & Identity at London College of Communication. The research question that guided my research was: how can I encourage teenagers to be less focused on body image on social media?
Before introducing my project, it is necessary to answer some of the questions above. First of all, the lust to participate in the virtual world is not going to vanish. It works and it works well. Social media exploits society’s vulnerabilities, becoming an ideal world for a few and at the same time an objective for all the other users. Youngsters use filters and manipulated photos to chase a superficial attractiveness and success in order to give the right impression to peers and society. The amount of likes, or their absence, has become the new measure of popularity (Shearer, 2016). The pressure on teenagers to always look perfect online is almost overwhelming and threatens their self-esteem. Indeed, the emergence of picture-sharing media above all is responsible for the recent increase in body image related issues of young women (Taryn, 2012). Predominantly, body dissatisfaction is recognised as a female issue, even if today this attitude has started to spread among males too (Nordqvist, 2014). However, young women online are more vulnerable than in real life. They post more content and are more exposed because girls trend to be open about their feelings. As a matter of fact, a large percentage of them feel the pressure to provide a certain image online in order to be popular and good looking to gain positive comments, as Karl Hopwood asserted.
So, to answer my research question, I created the brand Pop!, which aims to tackle this issue starting from its roots, challenging teens to change their online behaviour. It believes social media can be seen as breeding grounds for new attitudes and behaviours, not only as a laboratory for the creation of a body image stigma. It is a movement that arises from the assumption that being focused just on physical appearance and being exposed to body talk online negatively affects teenage girls’ self-esteem. Pop! truly believes that slowing the rise of body talk online will empower girls in hindsight.
Body talk is not just body bashing but it includes every type of discourse about physical appearance, even the positive ones because they reinforce the stereotypical view of beauty, placing attention on the way someone looks and contributes to harming teen confidence (Dove Self-esteem Project, 2013). The most detrimental type of body talk is fat talk, which consists in pejorative or commiserative conversations about one’s look (Adams, 2014). The magnitude of this phenomenon is reflected by the fact that 93% of girls engage in it. Body talk is widespread in everyday life as well as online. Hence, researchers analysed the amount of shared content containing the word “fat” on Twitter; in a few hours 4,569 tweets were posted, and over half of them were negative and the majority were written or received by women (Jacoby, 2016).
The web is full of negative examples of body talk. For instance, #Rateme and #Beautycontest are popular on YouTube and Instagram, which kids use to seek validation from their peers. Another case, which social media is still trying to control, is the rise of hashtags and contents, whose aim is to inspire girls to look thinner and to promote self-harm, also known as #Thinspiration or #Thinspo. Their essence is similar to those of pro-anorexia sites and forums (Devlin, 2013).
To achieve its vision, Pop! address directly young women. The first contact it establishes with its audience is a plug-in that works along with social media. When it spots a user is about to publish contents (photo, post, etc.) with hashtags related to body image, such as #thinspo, #pretty or #chubby, it appears on the screen suggesting how the girl can emerge from the crowd by avoiding these kinds of hashtags used by thousands of other users. This pop-up lasts about ten seconds in order to give teenagers the time to reflect on what they are doing, contrasting their impulsivity caused by their not yet fully developed prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, the time is also a reminder of the universal saying “count to ten before you speak”.
It is important to create collaboration between the brand and girls in order not to push them away by being patronising, but leveraging their lust to be seen online by showing them how to emerge from the crowd. Eventually, changing the attitude towards body image online of a single girl will likely create a domino effect, through which other teens can learn and react, thanks to peers’ influence and the power of the word of mouth.
“I am my stories, my dreams, my passions, my smiles, my tears, my experiences, my interests, my courage, my culture, my spirit, and much more. I am #pop!”
Shearer, C. (2016). Social media sites are contributing to delusion in young people. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent. co.uk/author/christopher-shearer [Accessed 12 May 2016].
Taryn, T. (2012). The Role of Social Media on Body Image & Body Stereotypes. [online] Storify. Available at: https://storify.com/tarynt/tyra-banks-on-body-image-issues [Accessed 3 Sep. 2016].
Nordqvist, C. (2014). What is body image? [online] Medical News Today. Available at: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/249190.php [Accessed 9 Sep. 2016].
Dove Self-Esteem Project, (2013). Body Talk: Words hold power. [online] Available at: http://selfesteem.dove.co.uk/Articles/Written/Body_talk_use_the_power_of_your_words_to_feel_great.aspx [Accessed 27 Aug. 2016].
Adams, R. (2014). How ‘Fat Talk’ Became A Social Epidemic. [online] The Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/27/fat-talk-women_n_5331507.html [Accessed 9 Sep. 2016
Jacoby, S. (2016). The Problem With The Way We Talk About “Fat” On Social Media. [online] Refinery29.com. Available at: http://www.refinery29.com/2016/04/108707/twitter-fat-weight-shame-study [Accessed 22 Sep. 2016].
Devlin, S. (2013). The Pro-Ana Wars: Why Thinspiration Continues to Infect Social Media. [online] Teen Vogue. Available at: http://www.teenvogue.com/story/thinspiration-pro-ana-social-media [Accessed 11