Social Comparison and Body Image

Having presented to over 560,000 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 emotional, psychological, physical, and social impact on some of our kids when it comes to body image and social comparison. In fact, in September 2021 the Wall Street Journal reported that they had seen internally produced slides by Facebook that stated research they had conducted found, “We (Facebook) make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” and “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse” 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.  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”, something psychologists have called “Reflective Appraisal”. It is clear from the research, that identity can be directly attached to how others think about them. 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. We parents need to be reflective, it was important to us 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.

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
  • Chiseled, 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 as male, 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.

The Social Message of Beauty

The “Kardashian” effect is something that is real. As Amanda Mozea, education outreach manager for MediaGirls  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.

Male beauty is portrayed in media as having:

  • Well-groomed hair
  • Blemish-free, moisturized skin
  • No body hair – “Manscaped”

We know that toxic influences online can have significant negative effects on self-esteem, especially among young girls. This is an issue that we need to talk to our kids about, especially when we know, according to MediaSmart, that 80% of 13-16 yr olds are more likely to buy a product from an online influencer https://mediasmart.uk.com/parents/ Here’s a great video from Dove to help get that conversation going with your child https://youtu.be/sF3iRZtkyAQ

Here’s another GREAT YouTube video from Dove soap that clearly demonstrates the above noted that you can watch together with your child https://youtu.be/iYhCn0jf46U 

Another great resource to sit down with your child to peruse and have a further discussion surrounding how pictures are morphed to meet current social ideals of beauty can be found on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/beauty.false/  

The Results of Social Comparison

As we stated earlier in this chapter, 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”  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. 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.

Here’s a GREAT YouTube video from music artist Steve Aoki called “Pretender” that also clearly demonstrates how pictures and video may not be what they appear to be that you can watch together with your child https://youtu.be/FkZlBznlUew

Of greater concern – how young adults are now turning to cosmetic surgery enhancements to change their looks to meet social beauty ideals. In a 2021 study called, “Effects of social media use on desire for cosmetic surgery among young women”, the researchers found:

“The results showed that viewing images of females who have undergone cosmetic enhancements affected young women’s desire for cosmetic surgery, especially if they spent a significant amount of time on social media, followed many accounts, and were less satisfied with their appearance.”

Having presented to over 560,000 teens from across Canada and the United States, anecdotally we have seen that many teen girls between 14-16yrs are more focused on how they personally present (look) online, and what others think about them online, whereas teen boys are more focused about posting about what they are doing online. We have found that this social comparison pulls the attention of young teen girls, more so than the boys, and places a lot of pressure on them as to how they are “supposed” to look and act, based upon perceived social norms and expectations in their “onlife” world. However, the question is – “Who is dictating these social norms and expectations?”

We have found that far too often online influencers, and the hypersexualized media (in all its forms) are dictating online social norms and expectations on how a teen girl should look and act, which can often increase insecurity about their body image and what they are doing or not doing in their onlife world. Unfortunately, because of these influencers and the hypersexualization that is pushed in the media they consume, some teen girls are now confronted with what they believe to be a binary choice when it comes to their use of social media:

#1- conform to these pushed social media norms and expectations, why? – because if you do it will often garner more likes and follows from peers and others, or

#2 – not conform, which often leads to social invisibility and being ghosted online and offline by their peers. For a 14-16yr old girl, this is really hard to do because they want to be socially accepted by their peers.

Given that we know that teens between the ages of 14-16yrs are developing their personal identity, the pressure to conform to meet perceived social norm expectations of what they are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to act is significant. This can lead to heightened anxiety, insecurity, and even depression and should be something that parents, caregivers, and educators are alive too within this cohort of teens.

Pre-internet, teen social norms and expectations were often dictated within a closed environment of a school peer group; yes, teen movies and TV also had some influence as well. However, today’s teen faces a juggernaut that is called social media, something we never experienced when we were in middle school or high school, but yet a reality in today’s onlife world. The message to our youth should be:

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

However, this is a tough message for some youth to take hold of when they are constantly being bombarded by influencers and the often hypersexualized media that say they are not the best “you”, but they could be “if you look like me”, “dress like me”, “act like me”, “dance like me”, “use this product like me”, or “take this pill or drug to lose weight like me” – etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!

Although we love social media and encourage pre-teens and teens to become good digital citizensthe increased use of social media can sometimes lead to problematic perceptions and behaviors. As mentioned, 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. In fact, in a 2022 article https://bit.ly/38Rk84s written by Charlotte Markey, a health psychologist, professor, and body image scientist, they stated:

“Boys (and many of us adults, too) tend to think body dissatisfaction only plagues girls.  But research suggests otherwise. 75% of adolescent boys are dissatisfied with their bodies.  Up to half of boys are using supplements such as protein powders during their teens thinking it will boost their muscularity…. Clearly, boys are suffering, but they seem to mostly be suffering in silence.” 

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. We have spoken about 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”

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