The Role of Social Media in the Body Positivity Movement
Thu, February 2, 2023

The Role of Social Media in the Body Positivity Movement


Ramsey Griffin, a junior majoring in studio art, has had a problem with her body image since she was young. She would often say hurtful things to herself because of how she looked. “Body image is something I’ve struggled with since I was young. In a media-heavy society, I feel that it would be hard not to struggle with body image,” she said.

Griffin is not alone. Many young people are experiencing the same thing. Research conducted by Park Nicollet Melrose Center showed that approximately 80% of US women don’t like how they look, 70% of normal weighted women want to be thinner, and 34% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies. Also, 53% of American girls age 13 are unhappy with their bodies. This figure increases to 78% by the time they reach 17.

For these girls and women, they need to achieve a certain body type or curve just to be accepted—a sad reality that we have been enduring for a long time. Fortunately, things are changing through the body positivity movement. Many women are sharing their stories of how they experienced bullying and discrimination because of their bodies. They challenge how mainstream media presents unrealistic beauty standards through advocating for a more accepting society.

How the BoPo Movement Started

Ever since the trend of body positivity or “BoPo” emerged, women have been gaining more encouragement to challenge societal ideas of a body image. According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, it aims to challenge narrow beauty ideals as well as encourage acceptance and appreciation of bodies of all shapes, sizes, and appearances. However, the movement is not a modern phenomenon.

The fight for the freedom to love our bodies is way older than the internet. The oldest roots of this concept go way back to the Victorian Dress Reform movement. During that time, women advocated for the acceptance of women’s bodies regardless of their body size and weight. They even discouraged fellow women from using extreme corsets or turning to body mutilation to fit the standards of an hourglass or petite figure. At the same time, they urged women to not hide their bodies underneath layers of fabric in overly elaborate dresses and argued for their right to wear pants.

When the 1960s came, the advocacy shifted a little bit. The movement revolved around ending fat-shaming and discrimination against “plump” women. Activists insisted on the rights of one particularly denigrated group: fat people. Today, with the help of social media, the movement eventually recognized that size is just one of the many ways that our bodies are unfairly judged. Through the help of the internet, the movement gained more popularity.



Social Media in the BoPo Movement

The BoPo movement started as a hashtag back in 2012. According to Vogue, the one-stop destination for women's fashion, beauty, lifestyle, and entertainment content, it was spearheaded by larger fat black and ethnic minority women and primarily focused on the celebration and radical self-love of visibly fat bodies. Since then, many groups from various social media platforms have used the hashtag. The movement has eventually trickled into the mainstream, causing somewhat of a body shape and self-love revolution.

Social media now has a huge influence on how many women see and appreciate themselves. A 2016 systematic review of 20 papers revealed that photo-based activities, including scrolling through Instagram or posting pictures of yourself, negatively impact thoughts about our bodies. “People are comparing their appearance to people in Instagram images, or whatever platform they're on, and they often judge themselves to be worse off,” Jasmine Fardouly, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said.

A 2019 study examined the posts with the hashtag #bodypositive and #effyourbeautystandards. The findings showed that the posts do indeed depict a broad range of body sizes and appearances. They include before and after photos of “real” vs “edited” bodies, which encourage awareness of the common use of Photoshop on Instagram; selfies of women proudly displaying their belly rolls and cellulite; images focusing on body functionality, and more.

Another study published last year found that exposing women to #bodypositive Instagram content appeared to boost their satisfaction with their own bodies. It involved showing 195 young women either body-positive content from popular accounts, photos showing thin women in bikinis or fitness gear, or neutral images of nature. “Those two things together are starting to build a little bit of a story that there may be some content that actually is useful for body image,” Amy Slater, an associate professor at the University of West England, Bristol, said. 

Women who were exposed to these kinds of posts are found to be more satisfied with their bodies, be appreciative of the unique functions and health of their bodies, and have a more positive mood. This goes to show that the BoPo movement has been playing important roles in challenging norms about beauty standards. 



The Dark Side of the Movement

While the message of body positivity revolves around helping people feel better about themselves, some people have criticized the movement. For instance, it implies that people can do what they want with their bodies as long as they are comfortable with it. However, some have tried to be thinner and fitter, thinking that they will be happier and healthier without considering the impacts. This idealization of thinness can contribute to people engaging in unhealthy actions under the guise of feeling "body positive."

Body positivity posts also make women more focused on their appearances. According to BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, studies showed that women who’d seen the body-positive photos still ended up objectifying themselves. “Even though they can make the end result look ‘better’, they still are focused on aspects of what they don't like about the way they look,” Jennifer Mills, an associate professor at York University, Toronto, said. 

Some women have also been anxious about posting their photos. They want to know if anyone has liked their photo before deciding how they feel about having posted it. “There’s this rollercoaster of feeling anxious and then getting reassurance from other people that you look good. But that probably doesn’t last forever, and then you take another selfie,” Mills added.