The bigger picture on how technology affects body image

Today’s social media allows us to be connected with one another in a way never allowed before. The biggest trends, latest styles – everything that’s popular is out there for people to see and consume instantaneously. But with mental illness and body image issues on the rise, it’s good to question if there’s a correlation to our increased use of social media. A study shows that the use of social media is linked with negative perception of body image, and the more you’re online, the more you’re likely to be affected. If most of the popular content you encounter on Instagram and Twitter feature the Kardashians scantily clad, fit models with slim waists and heavily photoshopped selfies uploaded by people in your own social circle, is it any surprise that people are feeling less and less confident in themselves? 

Technology that has shaped our perception of body image

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While our problems are unique to this time in history, humans have been struggling with body issues since the formation of society. The development of technology throughout time – makeup, mirrors, photography and videography, and ultimately the internet – have fundamentally changed the way we perceive ourselves and other people. In this day and age, it’s crucial we remember that whatever phenomenon we’re living through today, there have been countless others. If we fail to keep that perspective, there’s no telling just how far down the technological, social media-ridden rabbit hole we’ll go. 


Just how much has changed? 

The technological phenomena throughout history has helped define our relationship with ourselves and other people. Fashion, an ever-changing concept that humans partake in, dips in the realm of utility, comfort, and differentiation – every person wants to be individual enough to stand out from the crowd, but not enough so that they won’t be imitated. 

Makeup, jewelry, and body modification are some of the things that humans throughout history have used to enhance or physically change their bodies to achieve a beauty ideal. The invention and accessibility of technology such as mirrors, photography, videography, and social media have made it easier to comprehend and perceive how we may look to others. The combination of enhancements and technology in today’s age make it for a different era that people just aren’t sure of the psychological effects it’ll have on us yet.

Photography, invented in the 1800s, took the world by storm. By changing the boundaries of human art and allowing people to preserve glimpses of human history, photography quickly became the norm in which trends and the ideal body type could reach other people. And when videography became accessible in the 1900s, it provided a new dimension of reality and depth to on-screen footage that humans have never encountered before. 

Even smaller inventions have changed the way people experience and interact with their bodies. The household scale, popularized in the early 20th century, suddenly put a new emphasis on just how big or small you were. Being thin or heavy has always been a fluctuating thing throughout history and societies, but now there was a number attached that anyone weighing themselves could identify with.

Another invention, the modern mirror, invented in the 1800s, is what Alison Mathew Davids, professor of fashion at Ryerson University calls a “profound shift in self-perception.”

“People internalize that self-consciousness of how they look to others, because they can also see how they look to others,” says Davids. 

What is it with this internalization that makes room for mental health and body image issues to brew?

Unachievable beauty standards: an inevitable reality  


The Victorian Era of the 1800s, characterized by its style of corsets and top hats, had fashion standards that we can relate with today. “People look at these photos of the Victorian women and they think she’s so skinny, she’s wearing a corset. But they retouched photos even then to make waists smaller,” says Davids. “There were fashion place where waists were tiny, feet were tiny, and you had to have cute, dainty hands. And there have been people who have tried to achieve this unachievable ideal.”

And that’s true. In societies all over the world, unachievable beauty standards could be seen in different ways and forms. Foot binding, a practice of modifying young women’s feet to make them appear smaller, started in China in 960 A.D. and didn’t end until the 1900s. Due to the unnatural shape their feet were being pushed into, consequences ranged from having a toe fall off to getting an infection from an open wound, causing skin to fall off and horrible stenches to emanate. Bound feet women are more likely to fall and less able to squat than those with unbound feet. 

This is just one of the many examples of unrealistic beauty standards societies create one after the other. With the introduction of photo editing software, such as Photoshop and Facetune, it’s become harder to tell what’s real and what’s been manipulated. From smoothing your wrinkles, slimming your waist and expanding your hips, there’s certainly an ideal that favours the slim, hourglass figure for women, and the buff, trim body for men.

“People have always manipulated images of themselves, but I guess it’s just so much easier now. We just have to touch a button, and here’s your filter. People think you’re liberated from the corset, but then you have to have this corset of muscles. Then you go to dieting, or plastic surgery, or other means to maintain the ideal figure.”

The industry of beauty and marketing that capitalizes on these ideals is a whole other dimension to this issue that has the capability of alleviating these standards or perpetuating them even further. Through advertisements and commercials, the actors and ambassadors they choose and the airbrushing and slimming they show: just how long have we been bombarded with what is the “right” way to look?

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In 2015, Protein World ran an ad campaign on body image that sparked outrage amongst many on social media. It prompted rallies and petitions, and even more anger online.

Take that with the magnifying scope that is Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube and you have the opportunity for an echo-chamber of dwindling confidence and self-esteem. If humans struggled to compare themselves to unachievable ideals hundreds of years ago with our limited technology, what can we expect for ourselves now and in the future? 


Many social media influencers are starting to campaign for more transparency when editing for social media.

As awareness of these things affects our perception and our self-esteem, so too did the natural movement. Models like Ashley Graham and Iskra Lawrence promote natural photos and show off tricks to make one appear more photogenic and slim on their Instagram. A slew of YouTube videos dedicated towards showing off the harmful realities of social media and Reddit threads exist that aim to show before and after pictures of photos suspected of being doctored. Communities are being formed online and in real life in support and solidarity to help combat the isolating and damaging effects of everyone portraying their lives to be better than it actually is.


How do we stop this process all generations have been going through from ruining our body image?

 

The need to edit how you look so others can perceive you as in line with what’s the most fashionable and trendy is arguably only going to get stronger over time. If we get too sucked into our online worlds and believe everything we see on social media without question, there’s no telling how it will affect us down the line.

We’re all in an era of advanced technology that has unforeseen impacts on our mental health and self-perception. We have to avoid the traps that can affect us for the worst and campaign for transparency and awareness of these issues that impact us without our conscious knowing. 

This means limiting our time on social media, curating online content so it doesn’t feature the latest trends, and remembering the good ol’ saying: what you see is not always what is true, what is good, and what is healthy. 

This means avoiding putting our social media influencers on a pedestal and taking every sponsorship and selfie they post with a grain of salt. This means putting the phone down or leaving your computer every once in a while, and surrounding yourself with your support system without the interference of technology. 

So the next time you compare yourself with the hottest Instagram fitness inspiration – don’t get stuck in the loop. Disrupt these processes, build your self-esteem from the inside out, and remember: for the last hundreds of years, we’ve all been there.