Black and white photo of a woman with phone in hand; phone has color retouched image of her face on it.

The Filter Effect: What Does Comparing Our Bodies on Social Media Do to Our Health?

By Sarah Gabriele

Filters on social media apps such as Instagram and TikTok are great to take silly pictures alone and with friends, and they often give us a good laugh. However, as Dr. Christine Stabler from Penn Medicine writes, they also create an illusion, a perfection that we struggle to live up to every day. This is the case even if almost everyone is well aware that pictures are filtered and carefully selected, and that pictures do not always represent reality.

The use of social media does appear to be correlated to body image concerns and low-self esteem. A systematic review published in 2016 highlighted that photo-based activity on social media was linked to negative body image. In analyzing the roots of negative thoughts, studies have further shown that the activity of comparing ourselves is really what is detrimental to our own mental health. For example, researchers have found a positive relationship between Facebook usage and body image concerns, and, in particular, young women who spent more time on Facebook felt more concerned about their bodies. This study showed that these negative effects occur mostly because of the social comparison that users make to others. This problem is particularly amplified when it comes to women, highlighting that the danger of social media and the standard of beauty are gender-specific, as women are subjected to physical ideals more than men, and feel pressured to look a certain way.

Lately, I have been reading My Body by Emily Ratajkowski, where she does a beautiful job of describing what constantly comparing her body did to herself. In one essay, she describes what it means to be raised by a mother who is fixated on her beauty and who is constantly comparing her daughter to herself or to others. The book talks about much more as the author writes about how her own appearance has shaped her relationships, career, and psyche.

Comparing one’s body is also a constant problem in eating disorders. A recent study demonstrated that participants were less satisfied with their bodies following upward comparison — a term used to describe a comparison to a person perceived by the subject as better-looking than theirself. However, the mere act of comparing seems detrimental — both upward and downward comparisons were associated with lower body satisfaction and increased anxiety.

Going back to social media, these platforms are especially well-suited to make users compare themselves, by constantly showing pictures of others, in almost perfect form. This is not something new: studies in the early 2000s had already shown how mass media transmits sociocultural symbols that are unrealistic and unachievable for most users, especially women. This, however, has become even more true as the ability to change our body has become as easy as using a filter. Another, more recent study has further suggested that greater intensity of social media use was associated with a greater likelihood of engaging in social media comparison. This scenario is even more frightening if we consider the business model of social media companies, which often monetize the anxiety of their users.

This leaves me with the question of what we can do to free ourselves from the negative health effects of social comparison. One solution could be to transform this comparison into a positive stimulus. In this respect, we could use the comparison as a positive driver as we feel inspired by someone’s life and attitude. For example, in sports, it has been shown that moderate comparison could lead to greater motivation (though extreme upward comparison resulted in reduced motivation). However, the comparison of physical traits and body features might not be as easy, especially as we often have subconsciously interiorized society’s beauty standards, making the comparison unhealthy from the beginning.

Users of social media should be aware of the negative health effects of internalized beauty standards. In this sense, it is important to highlight how our internalized beauty standards often lead us to compare ourselves in everyday life, and to learn how to control the impact on our own mental health and behavior. At the same time, influencers on social media should become aware that followers do not merely follow them, they also compare themselves to them. Finally, we should hold social media companies responsible and require structural changes in the ways that content is displayed and beauty standards are portrayed.

sgabriele

Sarah Gabriele is a second-year Master of Bioethics candidate at Harvard Medical School. She obtained her law degree from the University of Trento (Italy) and an LL.M. from the Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating from law school, she worked at Hogan Lovells in their Milan office, specializing in pharmaceutical patent litigation. Currently, she is a student fellow with the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and a research specialist at PORTAL, in the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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