The Real “Thirst Trap”: Self-Objectification, Body-Comparison, and other
Weapons Against Women in Social Media
Warning: This document has triggering information for anyone with issues regarding eating, weight, body, or food. Images and language may be triggers.
It is a well known fact in modern culture that mass media contributes to how we see the world and ourselves. Plenty of documentaries and articles have been written about the damage that the objectifying of women and unattainable ideals portrayed in advertising can do to the psyches of women of all ages (Newsom; Harper 649). Magazines, TV commercials, and summer blockbusters--all perpetuate the image of one female body type, and one purpose for women to exist—to be looked at. When women are spoken of as “empowered” in the media, it is for their blatant sexuality, not for their intellectual accomplishments (Newsom). As this standard permeates our culture, what are the casualties? And what about the ways we represent ourselves? What lengths will girls go to for “likes” on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media? Because the damage from mass media has been addressed frequently in research already, I’d like to address here a newer danger in media--social media, and the very real effects it has on the health and mental health of young women. I will prove that social media is taking more time and attention of the public than any other form of media, and that women are particular susceptible to it. In addition, I will show how social media in particular, is creating a culture of increased body-comparison, body-dissatisfaction, and self-objectification in women. By linking these two points and illustrating a bit of lack of academic research in the area of social media and body image, I will demonstrate that more awareness on this topic is needed.
Social media, as a relatively new part of our lives, has taken over fast and furiously. Social media is “the use of dedicated websites and aplications to interact with other users, or to find people with similar interests to oneself.” (OED Online)
Facebook is the most popular social networking site (SNS), and was created only 10 years ago in 2004 (Wikipedia). Since then, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest, among others, have launched, and people are spending more time on social networking sites than on any other internet activity, including work, school, or email. This adds up to nearly 6 hours a day for men and 8 hours a day for women (Klein). It is clear that women are receiving more information through SNS, and are potentially more susceptible to any effects that might exist, due to more exposure.
Previous conceptions were that young women were largely affected by images in mass media, such as actresses on TV, and models in magazines when it came to thoughts of body comparison and dissatisfaction. Recent studies have shown that young women are more likely to compare themselves and their bodies to those of their peers, girls at school and on social media. Girls are internalizing images and talk from girls their own age and forming their body image and health habits from these images. A study done for the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that “adolescent girls reported comparing themselves with immediate friends and other girls at school more frequently than they compare themselves with models, actresses, or family members.” (Wertheim qtd in Stice 110) The truly scary thing about social media is that it comes home with teenage and young adult women when they come home from school—the comparison to other girls never stops. We are constantly online.
The accessibility and pervasiveness of social media platforms create a dangerous cycle for young women. Because they see unrealistic ideals from birth, and insecurities become set in so early, young women can tend to turn to SNS for “inspiration” or validation for their insecurities, and end up trying to cure them in unhealthy and unproductive ways. Pinterest, for example, is a social media platform where women can collect visual bookmarks (pins) from throughout the web, and organize them onto pinboards that share a theme. Of all social networking sites, Pinterest is the most overwhelmingly dominated by women; 90% of its users are female. (Klein) If women feel they need to lose a few pounds, they can find millions of ways through a simple search on Pinterest, adding them all to their “My Skinny Motivation” pinboard, for example. Whether any of these ways are healthy or not, is a risk that might be taken. Pins are not regulated, besides copyright holders being able to remove content with request (Pinterest.com; Wikipedia), and it is common knowledge that not everything on the Internet can be trusted as true. In addition, if young women want to beat themselves up (as they are so use to doing) as a tactic to work out more and eat less, there are endless images of protruding clavicles and ribcages to be pinned to “Thinspo” boards. This is where things get scarier.
“Thinspo” is short for “thinspiration.” These are not yet real words in the English language, but they are used rampantly in social networking communities, mostly by young women. The definition is easy to infer from the words used to make up “thinspiration”—thin inspiration. This seems innocent enough, but a few searches of this term will show a darker side. To shed some light, the Urban Dictionary definition gives a clearer picture: “Thinspo is used by people suffering from eating disorders to help keep them inspired (to resist treatment)… Thinspo is usually of photos of skinny or bony celebrities or models. Ie: I look at thinspo of Mary-Kate every day to make sure I don’t binge.” (Urban Dictionary) When I googled thinspo, I found images of dangerously thin girls, superimposed with text reading things like, “Hungry to Bed, Hungry to Rise, Makes a Girl a Smaller Size,” and “Every time you say no to food, you say yes to thin.” (Google Images) There were over 680,000 images of this nature. Many originate from Pinterest, and another SNS, Tumblr. When I searched thinspo from within Pinterest, the following notice is listed: “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information, and support, you can always contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.” (Pinterest.com) Beneath the notice, there are the expected photos rail-thin girls, and hunger-cheering mantras. While I don’t believe that these photos cause eating disorders, I do believe that photos like these contribute to disordered eating and can deepen some eating disorders, especially EDNOS or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. EDNOS is not anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, which are the major dangerous eating disorders that we first learn about in school. EDNOS is characterized by food or calorie restriction, excessive dieting or exercise, fear of “unclean foods,” rapid weight loss, or bingeing or purging (perhaps both). (Klein; nationaleationgdisorders.org) A person may have any or all of these symptoms, but not have them all together, and so no one notices. They may also maintain a normal body weight because they restrict food for several days and then binge in secret. Any of these habits are not healthy and deserve attention. (nationaleatingdisorders.org) These habits reflect an unhealthy body image that may be worsened as girls with depressive thoughts about themselves and their bodies delve deeper and deeper into “thinspirational” quotes and images on social media. The International Journal of Eating Disorders claims that the fact “that peer pressure to be thin apparently increases body dissatisfaction is alarming, because body dissatisfaction has emerged as one of the most potent risk factors for onset of eating pathology. (Stice qtd in Stice)
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says on their website that 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. Those are scary numbers. And all of those behaviors fall in line with symptoms of EDNOS. NEDA also lists that mortality rates are higher for EDNOS, than for other major eating disorders, at 5.2% for EDNOS, 4.0% for anorexia nervosa, and 3.9% for bulimia nervosa. If close to one half of teenage girls border on an unspecified eating disorder, with potentially the highest mortality rate of all disordered eating patterns, any contributing factors for disordered eating are worth looking into.
In a study at the University of Strathclyde, Dr Petya Eckler found that although time spent on social networks does not cause eating disorders, it does contribute to increased negative body image. She found that “the more time women spend on Facebook, the more they compare their bodies with those of their friends, and the more they felt negative about their appearance.” (BBC.com) She added “These comparisons are much more relevant and may hit closer to home. Yet they may be just as unrealistic the images we see in traditional media.” (BBC.com) These images are just as unrealistic, due to filters, Photoshopping, and editing that is easily done with a swipe of a finger on a smart phone. Another study suggests that women are more depressed after looking at images of attractive people on social media, and in a better mood after looking at images of unattractive people. (Klein) This is due to the comparisons that women subconsciously make with the images against themselves.
The comparisons women subconsciously make and even seek out through SNS are also potentially more damaging than those targeted at men. Through social media, women, and especially young women, begin to compare themselves to filtered, enhanced photos of friends, friends of friends, girls mainly in their age group, who seem to be always smiling, fashionable, traveling, happy, and put-together. I would argue that these kinds of images of “normal girls like me” can be more psychological detrimental than photos of faraway, though still aspirational celebrity bodies. On social media, there is a tendency to put our best foot forward, only presenting what will receive the most “likes” and “re-tweets.” No one posts pictures of themselves curled up on the couch depressed and eating cookies. Everyone posts pictures of themselves on the beach with a spray tan, a Photoshop App, and a filter. A teenage or college-age girl might start to internalize, “If that is what my classmate looks like on the weekend, what is wrong with me?” These internal messages will lead a girl to post and pose in photos of her own that will receive an increased amount of attention or “likes.” This may be the real demon in social media—self-objectification.
Self-objectification is acted out in social media when women tailor their posts, whether consciously or sub-consciously, to create an increased sexual response. Rachel Calogero, in her study on objectification and social activism, explains, “Self-objectification occurs when the objectifying gaze is turned inward, such that women view themselves through the perspective of an observer and engage in chronic self-surveillance.” (312) Self-objectification is a symptom of constant sexual objectification of women through mass media, social media, and other outlets. When women feel like objects, they act like objects. Calogero goes on to say, “Sexual objectification may be the most pernicious manifestation of gender inequality, because under a sexually objectifying gaze, women’s bodies become—even just for a moment—the property of the observer. Research has demonstrated that, compared with men, women are perceived as being more similar to objects and less human when their appearance is emphasized.” (312) Objectification is so damaging and pernicious because of the results; basically, women will self-objectify to attract or maintain the “positive” attention from men or sexual partners. Women are culturized to view the attention as flattering, validating, and even necessary for success. (Calegaro 313)
The damage of self-objectification gets worse. Calegaro found in her study that because objectification focuses on appearance, not action, women who self-objectify become likely to perpetuate objectification culture, as opposed to participating in social activism that might combat this detriment to women. Her study focused on college age females. She basically had two groups of young women; one group was asked to write a paragraph about a time they felt sexually objectified, and one was asked to write a paragraph about a neutral subject, such as their plans for the weekend. Then both groups were asked questions about how likely they were to participate in gender-based social activism, like attending a workshop, signing a petition (in person or online), circulating a flier related to women’s rights (in person or online), or fund-raising in the next 6 months. Here is the interesting part: Women in the self-objectification condition group reported significantly less willingness to engage in gender-based social activism than did the women in the control condition group. (Calogero 316)
This is frankly frightening. My intuitive reaction would be that after being objectified, a woman would want to fight back. But it is human nature to repeat the status quo. (Calogero 316) Sadly, images become internalized. Thoughts become reality. This is why social media can be a weapon—women are inundated with objectifying images, and then they act them out on their own Facebook and Instagram profiles all day everyday. “Given the number of opportunities for women to experience self-objectification in their daily lives, it is troubling that such experiences appear to thwart women’s engagement in activism on their own behalf.” (Calogero 316) Troubling indeed.
Although objectification theory contends that sexual objectification will socialize women to engage in self-objectification, (Harper 650) there has to be another way. Social media isn’t going anywhere, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope to be found in the images of women out there in the scrolling masses. There is a community to be found of “body positive” and feminist pages on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, among other platforms. Katie H. Willcox founded a movement called “Healthy is the New Skinny,” as well as Natural Model Management, a modeling agency for fashion models of all sizes. She posts pictures of healthy, happy women, with rosey cheeks and fat rolls, doing active things, eating and playing outdoors. She says on her Instagram, “I don’t know where any of this will go, I just know it is my job to create my vision and honor my passion. All I can do is my best to make a difference in the world. That is all any of us can do and it adds up.” (Willcox, Instagram) Another inspiring ‘grammer is Honorine Hachey, best known for the #honormycurves movement on Instagram. She posts daily that every woman’s body is her own, completely unique, and should be honored no matter what. A recent post read, “I’m body positive, in that I’m POSITIVE I can do what I want with MY OWN BODY. I’m also body positive in that I extend that same courtesy to each of you, in all your glorious forms, without judgment or criticism… we are all beautiful…” (@honorcurves, Instagram) The positive messages are out there if you look. Social media can be a weapon, but it can also be a shield.
The unique thing about social media is that it is like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book—the user is more in control of the content they view and receive than they are with other media outlets. By searching out and following uplifting content that doesn’t objectify women or perpetuate body-comparisons, we are voting. We are in control. If we don’t want to be objectified, we can object. We can create a network, our own social network, of the images we want to see everywhere of healthy, strong, independent, activist women.
By becoming aware of the affects social media has on our culture and society as a whole, we can see the specific damage that it has on women specifically, since women are its major users. (Klein 58) When we learn the nature of the effects of viewing content on social media on a constant basis—body-comparison with peers—we see the damage that so much social media usage can do. The damages include increased body-dissatisfaction and a propensity towards eating pathology in young women. (Stice; neda.org) In addition, the unique culture of desiring attention and “likes” via social media leads to increased self-objectification and likelihood to perpetuate the objectification cycle. (Calogero; Harper) The damage can be undone through awareness and seeking out a social network of positive role models and images, in addition to strict avoidance of female objectification while using social media. Strict avoidance sounds difficult, but it is a start. In the words of Katie Willcox, “That is all any of us can do, and it adds up.” (Instagram)
Briggs, Helen. "'Selfie' Body Image Warning Issued." BBC News. BBC, 10 Apr. 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/health-26952394>.
Calogero, Rachel M. "Objects Don't Object: Evidence That Self-Objectification Disrupts Women's Social Activism." Psychological Science 24.3 (2013): 312-18. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23355121>.
Harper, Brit, and Marika Tiggemann. "The Effect of Thin Ideal Media Images on Women’s Self-Objectification, Mood, and Body Image." Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 58.9-10 (2008): 649-57. Springer Link. Springer US. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-007-9379-x#>.
Klein, Kendyl M. "Why Don 't I Look Like Her? The Impact of Social Media on Female Body Image." Scholarship @ Claremont 2013 (2013). CMC Student Scholarship. Claremont Colleges. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1749&context=cmc_theses>.
Newsom, Jennifer Siebel and Kimberlee Acquaro. Miss Representation. Girls Club Entertainment, 2011. Film.
"Social Media." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. <http://www.oed.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/view/Entry/183739?redirectedFrom=social media#eid272386371>.
Roxby, Philippa. "Does Social Media Impact on Body Image?" BBC News. BBC, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/health-29569473>.
Stice, Eric, Jennifer Maxfield, and Tony Wells. "Adverse Effects of Social Pressure to Be Thin on Young Women: An Experimental Investigation of the Effects of “fat Talk”." International Journal of Eating Disorders 34.1 (2003): 108-17. Wiley Online Library. Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eat.10171/abstract;jsessionid=4968E937874EF6DA35C6134A3F691F31.f01t03>.
"Thigh Gap." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 9 Oct. 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thigh_gap>.
" Thinspo." Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 2 Mar. 2007. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
"Thinspo Search." Google. Google. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. <www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=thinspo>.