Social Comparison, Reflective Appraisal, Body Image, Media, & Youth

November 9, 2020

The Perception of Beauty, and the Beast of Social Media

Having presented to over 490,000 pre-teens and teens from across Canada and the United States, there is no doubt that media, in all its forms, is having a significant impact on some of our kids when it comes to body image and social comparison. We also think it is important to recognize that this challenge applies no matter what the gender identity of the pre-teen or teen. However, the research does appear to show that its effects are greater with teens who identify as female (1). Given the increase in social media use by teens, there is no doubt “that people come to think of themselves in the way they believe others think of them” (2), something psychologists have called “Reflective Appraisal.” It is clear from the research, identity can be directly attached to how others think about them (3,4). Yes, social comparison is a natural process, but social media can skew what is real and what is not. It is important for parents to understand that during the pre-teen and teen years, body image concerns are real issues to our kids that we can’t ignore or minimize (5). Parents need to be reflective, it was important to use as well when we were teens, but we didn’t have the amplification of today’s social media to worry about. Understanding this fact is important as a parent, and having discussions with your pre-teen/teen about this challenge is also extremely important in today’s onlife/online world.

The Social Message of Weight & Body Image:

The media’s message – “thin is in”; it is because of this fact that youth, especially those who identify as female, are very concerned about peer perception, especially when it comes to weight, and how it can lead to negative social comparison and negative outcomes such as eating disorders (6,7).

The media’s portrayal of desired weight and body image for those who identify as female is:

· Hourglass figure – large breasts, small waist, large butt

· Toned muscles but not too muscular

· Thigh gap

· Long legs

The media’s portrayal of desired weight and body image for those who identify as male is:

· Tanned or darken skin

· Chiselled, lean, toned muscles

· Must have six-pack abs

Of interest, a friend of ours who worked in the health supplement industry stated that he saw a significant increase over the past few years in the number of teens who identified, who were now purchasing pre and post-workout protein powders. Many of these supplements advertise that they help to reduce body fat and promote muscle gain. Another growing concern, the use of steroids by teen males, not for athletic enhancement, but rather for body sculpting purposes, not understanding the medical dangers of doing so (8).

The Social Message of Beauty

The “Kardashian” effect is something that is real (9). As Amanda Mozea, education outreach manager for MediaGirls (10) found in her research, female beauty is portrayed in media as having:

· Big eyes

· Small nose

· Big lips

· Small chin

· Strong cheekbones

· Dramatic eyebrows

· Blemish-free skin

· Scar-free skin

· Thick, shiny, frizz-free hair

Pre-teen and teen boys are also becoming more “beauty” conscious. In fact, there has been a significant increase in the skincare/cosmetics industry that specifically targets those who identify as male with products such as facial scrubs, moisturizers, AHA peels, and facial oil which are becoming more the norm (11).

Male beauty is portrayed in media as having:

· Well-groomed hair

· Blemish-free, moisturized skin

· No body hair – “Manscaped” (12)

The Results of Social Comparison

As we stated earlier in this article, social comparison is a natural process that continues into adulthood. Often, especially with youth, identity is directly related to how others think about them. However, media can skew what is real and what is not. It is extremely common that many of the influencers that pre-teens and teens follow on social media, are constantly morphing or staging their public pictures in an attempt to sell beauty products that they are promoting. As the well-known fashion model Cindy Crawford stated, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford” (13) Cindy Crawford’s statement was an admission that her fashion pictures online, or in fashion magazines, did not reflect what she truly looked like.

To attain these skewed perceptions of media’s portrayal of beauty and body image, teens will take hours to become “camera-ready”, looking for that “perfect picture” to post online (14). Often the picture(s) teens post will have been digitally altered/filtered so that they accentuate, big eyes, small nose, big lips, small chin, dramatic eyebrows & blemish-free skin; the media’s ideals of beauty as mentioned earlier in this article. They will also digitally body-sculpt pictures or pose in specific positions that enhances breast size, waist size and body curves.

Although we love social media and encourage pre-teens and teens to become good digital citizens, the increased use of social media can sometimes lead to problematic perceptions and behaviours. The teen years are a time of heightened body image and social comparison concerns, especially for those who identify as female, but we are also seeing an uptake in this challenge with those who identify as male as well. Peer feedback is important to teens, especially in the world of social media. If we parents are not aware and alive to what is happening in our child’s onlife/online world, especially when it comes to social comparison and reflective appraisal, it could lead to less than desirable outcomes such as eating disorders, body dysmorphia, heightened anxiety, depression and even self-harm (15). We have spoken to this issue in our school presentation for several years now and our message has been and will continue to be:

“You are the best you in this entire world and don’t let anyone else tell you differently”

Knowledge and the understanding and application of that knowledge is power, and we hope this article shed some light on this challenge.

Digital Food for Thought

The White Hatter

















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