Kira, a junior kinesiology major at the University of La Verne, was 16 when she developed an eating disorder. When she first joined Instagram, she would see photos of girls that she didn’t know appear on her feed. The app did this to recommend followers to its new users.
But what stuck with Kira, who asked that her real name not be used for this story, was the girls’ hourglass figures and toned stomachs. They were skinny, in shape and seemed happy with how they looked. To Kira, these girls were gorgeous.
Kira realized she wanted to look like them, no matter what extreme lengths she had to go to.
For six months she would use laxatives to lose weight while still eating meals. When that did not give her the results she wanted, she resorted to working out twice a day and decreasing her food portions during meals.
After several months, it became a habit. Kira felt that she was never skinny enough, never pretty enough, and never good enough. Her weight loss affected not only her physical health, but her emotional and mental health as well.
When she went on Instagram again two years later, she saw a new body type being praised all over the Internet, curvaceous women with wide hips and a round backside.
“It’s crazy to think that social media does play a huge role in how people perceive themselves,” Kira said. “It’s true, because I fell victim to that.”
According to journalist Dan Blystone’s article “Story of Instagram: Rise of the #1 Photo Sharing Application,” Instagram was launched in 2010 and gained 25,000 users in its first day. Since then, its popularity has increased, with its users ranging from children to adults.
According to a 2020 study, titled “The Impact of Social Media on Youth Mental Health” published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, nearly all adolescents aged 13-17 use some form of social media.
During adolescence rapid development of the brain’s socioaffective circuitry, the part of the brain that is affected by everyday behavior and interactions with others, may heighten sensitivity for social information, increasing the drive for validation through social rewards.
Through social media platforms, that validation is constantly available in the form of likes, comments, or views. According to the article, social recognition and validation becomes extremely important when entering adolescence. The need to be seen and validated is heightened.
Meanwhile, social media is accessible for the youth to gain that validation. Unfortunately, the validation is only gained if the user gets a certain amount of attention on social media.
Caroline Heldman, professor of critical theory and social justice at Occidental College, said that many studies have confirmed that social media produces an outward orientation, a strategy based on openness, for young people who rely on likes and follows to feel validated. In other words, social media has caused its users to desire to make every detail in their lives public. The more open they are, the more likes and comments they’ll receive.
“This has made young people more anxious about what people think of them and more vulnerable to self-esteem issues since their worth is more dependent on the validation of strangers,” Heldman said.
An informal survey on the subject conducted last month on Instagram showed that 70.7% of respondents find themselves checking their phones frequently to see how many likes and comments they have received on a post, with 41.5% of the survey’s respondents contemplating on deleting a photo if it does not do as well as they had hoped.
“I always thought that I had to post this picture but I could only keep it up if it got a number of likes, a couple of followers, and if people told me I looked good,” Kira said.
She blamed the need for validation on the way Gen Z has grown up seeing influencers on social media. By seeing all of the adoration influencers have, it makes an impressionable adolescent desire the same.
Julia Ruelas, a senior at Diamond Bar High School and Miss Diamond Bar 2020, said that she started gaining a following on Instagram and Tik Tok in March 2020. One of her first videos, which was of her entering the Miss Diamond Bar beauty pageant with a dress she designed, received 3.2 million views. Now she has 151,600 followers on the app and an average of around 25,000 views per video.
She has gone to places where there have been multiple people with Tik Tok followings and said that these “Tik Tok famous” people carry their numbers with entitlement. She said that the people who have large followings on the app have not done anything to receive that fame except look pretty and stand in front of a camera.
“Most Tik Tok users are teenage boys and girls. Considering that, it’s not surprising at all that most views go to girls with pretty faces and nice bodies,” Ruelas said.
Jennifer L. Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure T.V.,” said that our eyes have been trained by pop culture to look at women and sexualize them and to validate their beauty and availability. With gaining followers comes the promise of making a career through social media.
“Now we’re telling girls you should be available to be looked at all times,” Pozner said.
Samantha Leyland, a freshman radiology major at Mt. San Antonio College, said that a lot of people are looking at social media as an easy way towards a career. If a person can get enough followers, then they might be offered brand ambassador positions or promotion deals in clothing or make up lines. Leyland said that it is considered an easier way to make money than going to college for a higher education, having to pay off loans after graduation, and having to seek a decent job.
“It’s frustrating because I post the same things as these famous Tik Tokers, but I don’t get the same amount of views. It makes you wonder, ‘Why? Am I just not pretty enough?’” Leyland said. “It makes you feel bad about yourself.”
Leyland has been trying to become more active on Instagram to gain a following, posting more pictures of herself. She said that she would like to one day have brands reaching out to her to make a career from social media, and while she admitted that she knew it was not likely, she still plans to try.
She said that it feels disappointing when you do not get the amount of likes or comments you were hoping for after putting in so much effort to look good for a photo, such as taking hours to take hair and makeup, and to take up additional time in deciding on which outfit is cute enough to wear.
Pozner said that we live in a society that tells women that their value comes from their beauty. The most recent popular look for women is to be petite with tiny waists, toned stomachs, long legs, smooth skin, and absolutely no signs of stretch marks or cellulite.
“The closer you are to meeting those beauty standards, the more valuable you are. The more attractive you are, the more you’ll be wanted, and the more you’ll be successful,” Ponzer said.
Nancy Gruver is the founder of New Moon Girls Media, which was founded on the idea of a feminist magazine run by girls, using their voices to express their hopes, dreams, needs, and their difficulties while supporting each other. She wanted to create a community for girls where they could be themselves and be valued for doing so.
Society gives higher status to those who meet the beauty stereotypes. As humans, our brains like stereotypes because they are familiar, Gruver said.
The main issue is how often the beauty stereotypes change.
“When I was a teenager, the ideal body type was an extremely thin, flat chested, almost androgynous look. It was a kind of body very few people have,” Gruver said. “The shifting trends creates a system where girls and women spend far more time, and money, trying to make ourselves look the way our culture expects us to.”
Megan Jessup, a freshman administration of justice major at Fullerton College, said that she feels like social media is toxic for her because of the beauty trends that it sets.
“I don’t see anyone my size on Instagram,” Jessup said. “I start to get in my head about having to look a certain way, then it just makes my whole mood off.”
She said that when the curvaceous body types became popular, she felt recognized, valued even. Then before she could even begin to establish confidence in herself, the trend was reverting back to being skinny.
“It’s not our fault that we’re not comfortable with our bodies because we don’t know any different,” Ruelas said. “We’re so accustomed to the changing trends.”
Ruelas said beauty expectations have always changed with women and Pozner agreed. From the posters of pinup girls that existed in the 1950s to the Photoshopped images of celebrities today, women constantly face unrealistic expectations regarding their appearances.
The informal survey revealed that 63.4% of respondents felt insecure due to Photoshopped appearances on social media, so much so that 46.3% said that they have considered physically altering their appearance, whether through plastic surgery or weight loss supplements, to fit a certain look.
Photoshop is nothing new. It was common for high-end organizations to use it on images of their models. The only difference is that now, Photoshopping apps are available at everyone’s fingertips.
“You walk through a mediated world, in which almost every image of a human being is impossible to achieve,” Pozner said.
Pozner added that non-Photoshopped images on social media become a cautionary tale of sorts. These photos were not something a person should strive to look like, but rather what not to look like. They are presented as something a person should not aspire to be, as motivation to change yourself to the impossible standards of how you should look.
Plenty of social media’s influencers and celebrities are active users of Photoshop, but are not transparent about it, further presenting impossible beauty standards.
“There’s always this, ‘Here’s how you should be,’ but that’s not realistic because not everyone looks like that,” Pozner said. “Those images are so out of reach.”
One of the most popular categories on Tik Tok are fitness influencers. On their Instagrams, they will upload a picture of themselves with a weight loss supplement. Their followers do not know if that photo of them is real or how accurately that weight loss supplement works because the power of Photoshop is so vast.
“We’ve been convinced that we can take shortcuts, but it could be a placebo effect or even cause negative side effects,” Ruelas said. “It can cause a negative relationship with eating.”
“It makes girls think that they can achieve that body, even though it’s not real. It’s a combination of Photoshop and plastic surgery,” Kira said. “Girls will go at extreme lengths to get it.”
Gruver said that another issue is how girls are not taught about their bodies. Many young girls do not know that the excess fat on their stomachs is good for them, healthy even. Instead, they are looking up workout videos or taking supplements to try to get rid of it because of what they see on social media.
“We should be teaching girls that from the time that they are toddlers,” Gruver said. “Not to make them focus on their body in a negative way, but just to help them focus on accepting.”
In February California Democratic Assembly member Cristina Garcia proposed a bill that would require social media platforms to have a label on Photoshopped images and specify what exactly has been Photoshopped to decrease the negative mental health effects that come from viewing these impossible beauty expectations.
As of April 8, the bill was in committee in the legislative process. Garcia has since cancelled the meeting, but has not disclosed the reason.
“The idea of showing real people as they are is incredibly important and could be formative for an entire generation for viewers and could reduce so much harm,” Pozner said.
Taylor Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.