The Role of Social Platforms in Promoting Unrealistic Beauty Standards

October 13, 2023   •  Posted in: 

This article looks at the role of social media and its relationship with body image. Can social platforms really promote unrealistic beauty standards? If so, how can we protect ourselves against this influence and what can be done to mitigate the risk?


What is body image?

Body image is a way of describing how we think and feel about our body. It encompasses our perception of what our body looks like and whether we appreciate what it can do. Body image also covers the way we treat our bodies.

A positive body image isn’t just “liking what we see” in the mirror. However, the way our body looks can impact how we are treated by society, which in turn, might influence how we think about our body.

“Body image is stored in our brain cells, not in our fat cells
It’s important to remember the way our body may appear to others does not necessarily correlate to how we feel about it. Despite the clichés, people who have conventionally thin or attractive bodies may have a negative body image, while those in bigger bodies may have a positive body image.


How does body image affect mental health?

The effects of negative body image can be far reaching. Several mental health conditions are closely related to body image and, as such, poor body image can be considered a risk factor for mental health issues.

Here are some of the most common mental health conditions that can intersect with poor body image:

1. Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD): BDD is characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with perceived flaws or defects in one’s appearance. Individuals with BDD often have a distorted body image and may engage in repetitive behaviors or mental acts to alleviate their distress. BDD can significantly impact a person’s self-esteem and quality of life.

2. Eating Disorders: Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, often involve disturbances in body image. These conditions are characterized by extreme concerns about weight, shape, and size, leading to disordered eating behaviors and, in some cases, severe physical and psychological consequences.

3. Depression: While depression is primarily a mood disorder, it can also affect body image. People with depression may experience negative thoughts and feelings about their appearance, leading to a poor body image. Conversely, poor body image can also contribute to the development or worsening of depressive symptoms.

4. Anxiety Disorders: Various anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, can influence body image. Anxiety can heighten self-consciousness and create excessive worry about perceived flaws, which may lead to negative body image and avoidance of social situations.

5. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD can involve distressing, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts or obsessions. In some cases, these obsessions may revolve around body image concerns, such as fear of contamination or the need for symmetry, leading to compulsive behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety related to body image.

One report from 2019[1] found 30% of all adults have felt so stressed by body image and appearance they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, while one in eight adults experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image.


The influence of social media platforms

Social media has been part of our lives for two decades now, although most popular platforms saw usership soar in the 2010s, correlating with the rise of smartphone usage.

According to the latest research, 84% of U.S. adults use social media. Two apps in particular are most often mentioned in research around social media and body image: Instagram and TikTok[2].


What is Instagram and how many people use it?

Instagram describes itself as:

“Instagram is a free photo and video sharing app available on iPhone and Android. People can upload photos or videos to our service and share them with their followers or with a selected group of friends. They can also view, comment and like posts shared by their friends on Instagram. Anyone aged 13 and over can create an account by registering an email address and selecting a username.[3]

Instagram is currently the third most popular social media app in the U.S., with around 45% of U.S. adults using it, equating to over 116 million users[4]. The only country in the world with more Instagram users than America is India.

Instagram users worldwide spend an average of 29 minutes a day on Instagram[5]. This figure is higher for users under the age of 25 (who average 32 minutes a day) while it’s lower for those over 25 (who average 24 minutes a day).


What is TikTok and how many people use it?

TikTok is a social media application consisting of short, user-submitted videos, which can range in duration from three seconds to 10 minutes[6].

It’s one of the highest growing social media apps in the world, with one in three American adults now using TikTok[7].

According to a survey conducted in 2022, adults in the U.S. spent, on average, 46 minutes per day on TikTok[8]. By 2024, it is estimated that U.S. adults will spend an average of 48 minutes per day on the social short-video platform.

Both TikTok and Instagram state users must be 13 years of age or above. However, in practice, there are believed to be millions of users who are under this age.


Instagram, TikTok, and body image

Therefore, It’s not surprising spending hours watching photo and video content has a big influence on the ways in which we see the world. Depending on who we follow, Instagram and TikTok have the power to affect many of the perspectives we have, including body image.

Both platforms have sub-communities of users who focus on dieting/weight loss, “before and after” transformations, so-called “fitspiration,” and healthy eating, as well as the more general fashion and beauty influencer accounts.

There are even accounts centered around eating disorders such as anorexia. Although it seems unlikely, in 2021, Instagram admitted its algorithm had shown accounts that broke its own rules against the promotion of extreme dieting to users:

“We do not allow content that promotes or encourages eating disorders and we removed the accounts shared with us for breaking these rules. We use technology and reports from our community to find and remove this content as quickly as we can, and we’re always working to improve. We’ll continue to follow expert advice from academics and mental health organizations, like the National Eating Disorder Association, to strike the difficult balance between allowing people to share their mental health experiences while protecting them from potentially harmful content.” – Facebook spokesperson (Instagram’s parent company) in response to CNN

This type of content may be an extreme example of social media’s potential to cause harm, but its impact more broadly in promoting unrealistic beauty standards has been the subject of plenty of research.


What does the research into social media and body image tell us?

In 2021, Instagram’s own internal research was leaked to the Wall Street Journal[9]. The damning findings suggested the app has made body image issues worse for one in three girls, and more than 40% of Instagram users who indicated they felt “unattractive” said the feeling began while using the app.

One study from 2020[10] made the link between social media users being both consumers and producers of content, for example, via “selfies.” Researchers theorized that a worsened body image, higher levels of self-objectification, and lower self-esteem would precede greater engagement in selfie behaviors.

However, the same findings suggest it’s more complicated, and selfie posting can reflect negative and positive body image, depending on the context. They found young women who appreciated their bodies engaged more in selecting and deliberately posting their selfies on social media, suggesting a healthy body image. Even when we have high body appreciation, the act of posting images of ourselves contributes to a culture in which this is expected, valued, and potentially weaponized.

Women who had a stronger tendency to engage in self-objectification (focusing on how we look from an outsider’s perspective and an aspect of negative body image) were also more likely to be engaged in selfie behaviors. In this case, it is likely that spending time creating the “perfect” selfie speaks of lack of self-worth.

Filters, defined as appearance-altering digital image effects often used on social media, have also been explored in the research. One study from 2016[11] found exposure to manipulated Instagram photos directly led to lower body image.

Another study from 2022[12] indicated photo-sharing social networks, virtual space engagement, and selfie filtering apps are indicative of dysfunctional internalization of unrealistic body images and unattainable appearance standards. The implication is people using filters are doing so because they do not feel as though their unfiltered appearance is “good enough,” and yet, by posting filtered images, they are contributing to ever-increasing levels of unattainability.

Filters are particularly popular on a third social media application: Snapchat. This is one of the most popular apps for young girls, in particular. Its popularity has even coined a term around a new type of body dysmorphia called ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’. Researchers[13] believe Snapchat dysmorphia is fueled by the platform’s automated selfie filters which reflect unrealistic social and cultural standards. Their research suggests this is particularly problematic and contributes to body image impairment when users are at a developmental stage when identity is in its formation. This makes high adolescent use of social media particularly problematic.

Yet another TikTok study[14] in 2022 found the app to be detrimental for body image, “with usage being positively associated with body dissatisfaction. TikTok also causes indirect effects by increasing upward appearance comparison and body surveillance, which in turn increases body dissatisfaction”.


What are the solutions for poor body image caused by social media?

There are a variety of ways you can reduce the effect of social media on body image.

1. Media literacy

Media literacy is one way to combat the negative effects of social media on body image. Media literacy is the ability to critically analyze stories presented in the mass media and to determine their accuracy or credibility. This skill can be taught – a free digital media literacy tutorial is available at GCFGlobal.

One study[15] found social media literacy acted as a protective factor in the body image of girls and women, although, interestingly, not for boys and men.

2. Limit time spent on social media

Reducing the time spent on social media is also a way to reduce the risks of negative body image. According to one study[16], participants who spent more time on Instagram had higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater comparisons of physical appearance, and lower self-esteem.

3. Curate your social media feed

Establish online boundaries by controlling the content one is exposed to and removing detrimental or triggering material, as well as disconnecting from “toxic” people or pages.

By actively curating the content you consume, you have the ability to create a safeguarded and supportive online environment to enhance your overall experiences. This approach also has a direct correlation with fostering a positive body image, which can act as a protective filter when processing information.

Try exploring some of the hashtags on social media, broadening your feed to include bodies beyond the conventional beauty standard we see across most of the media we consume. For example, see what comes up if you use hashtags like #bodypositivity, #antiracism, or #disabilityawareness.

4. Talk to others about how they feel

The portrayal of life on social media is often skewed, emphasizing a narrow perspective. Engaging in open conversations about our behaviors and motivations on social media can help uncover these disparities. Such discussions can promote critical thinking by exploring the purpose behind our presence on social platforms, the significance we attach to likes, and other online interactions and methods to mitigate the adverse impact on body image.

5. Talk to your children and be a positive role model

Parents can lead by example, displaying positive behaviors related to body image (avoiding criticism of their own appearance or of others) and modeling healthy eating habits and physical activity.

Be sure to commend your children on qualities unrelated to physical appearance. Teach them everyone deserves respect, regardless of body shape or size, and encourage open expression of emotions and communication about their bodies. You can also assist them in developing coping strategies for dealing with appearance-related comments, and refrain from imposing unrealistic expectations or implying that changing their weight or shape would make them more likable.

6. Providing support within schools

In a school setting, classroom-based body image programs that address media literacy, self-esteem, and peer influences can provide some support.

One study[17] suggests 76% of students reported feeling more confident about themselves after participating in body confidence lessons at school. Approaches that encompass the entire school community, creating supportive environments for students, as well as health promotion strategies focusing on the social and well-being benefits of physical activity rather than weight loss and muscle building, may also prove effective.


Support for body image issues and related mental health issues

If you think you may need help or support for body image issues or a related issue, The Center • A Place of HOPE can help.

Our proven Whole Person Care model addresses the entire you — your emotional, medical, physical, psychological, nutritional, fitness, and spiritual needs. You are more than just the abuse you went through.

Please get in touch with us for more information or to set up an intake appointment with one of our compassionate staff members.

[1] “Body Image: How we think and feel about our bodies,” Mental Health Foundation. (2019)
[2] Brooke Auxier & Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2021,” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021,
[3] “About Instagram,” Instagram.
[4] Maxwell Iskiev, “The fastest growing social media platforms of 2023,” Hubspot. Hubspot Inc., May 30, 2023,
[5] Brain Dean, “Instagram Demographic Statistics: How Many People Use Instagram in 2023?,” Backlinko. Semrush Inc., August 23, 2023,
[6] Wikipedia contributors, (2023, June 19). “TikTok,” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia, Retrieved June 21, 2023,
[7] Maxwell Iskiev, “The fastest growing social media platforms of 2023,” Hubspot. Hubspot Inc., May 30, 2023,
[8] “Average time spent per day on Netflix, TikTok, and YouTube by adults in the United States from 2020 to 2024,” Statista. January 24, 2023,
[9] Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, Deepa Seetharaman, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., September 14, 2021,
[10] Jolanda Veldhuis et al., “Me, my selfie, and I: The relations between selfie behaviors, body image, self-objectification, and self-esteem in young women,” Psychology of Popular Media, 9(1), (2022): pp. 3-13.
[11] Mariska Kleemans et al., 2018). “Picture perfect: The direct effect of manipulated instagram photos on body image in adolescent girls.” Media Psychology, 21(1), (2018): pp. 93-110.
[12] Mary Rowland, “Online visual self-presentation: Augmented reality face filters, selfie-editing behaviors, and body image disorder,” Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 12(1), (2022): p. 99. doi:10.22381/jrgs12120227.
[13] Simon C. Tremblay, Safae Essafi Tremblay, Pierre Poirier, “From filters to fillers: an active inference approach to body image distortion in the selfie era,” AI & Soc, Volume 36, (2021): pp. 33-48.
[14] Danielle Bissonette Mink, Dawn M. Szymanski, “TikTok use and body dissatisfaction: Examining direct, indirect, and moderated relations,” Body Image, Volume 43, (2022): pp. 205-216, ISSN 1740-1445,
[15] Susan J. Paxton, Siân A. McLean, Rachel F. Rodgers, “‘My critical filter buffers your app filter’: Social media literacy as a protective factor for body image,” Body Image, Volume 40, (2022): pp. 158-164, ISSN 1740-1445,
[16] Isabel Alfonso-Fuertes et al., “Time Spent on Instagram and Body Image, Self-esteem, and Physical Comparison Among Young Adults in Spain: Observational Study,” JMIR Form Res, (2023). doi: 10.2196/42207.
[17] Mary Rowland, “Online visual self-presentation: Augmented reality face filters, selfie-editing behaviors, and body image disorder,” Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 12(1), (2022): p. 99. doi:10.22381/jrgs12120227.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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