Body Positivity & Social Media: An Incredible Story
As a Social Media Manager, I spend a ridiculous amount of time on social media. When I’m not on the platforms to do competitor research, to launch campaigns or publish posts for my clients, I am spending my own free time browsing feeds. According to screen time, I am spending on average about 7 hours on Instagram, 3 hours on TikTok (a new guilty pleasure), 2 and a half hours on Facebook, 2 hours on Twitter and around an hour on LinkedIn each week. That’s over 15 hours worth of social media scrolling outside of the time I spend on my laptop actually working on social media. It’s a lot.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that I’m spending over 15 hours looking at the most perfect aspect of people’s lives. It’s no secret that this can have horrendous negative impacts on mental health, body image, and so much more. It is becoming increasingly common that people will take a break from social media, and people are claiming the benefits to their health and just their general mindset are incredible. But as an avid social media fan, I have to say that in the past 4 years that I have been working in social, let alone since when I created my first ever Facebook profile aged 12, we really have come a long way. Now I’m not saying that social media is amazing for your mental health, but when it comes to body positivity and acceptance, social media has made strides and the impact can be seen everywhere.
Here’s a timeline of social media and body positivity, and how it really is an incredible story.
Social Media Pre – 2010
Think back to social media before 2010, before the launch of Instagram. Facebook is thriving and I’m probably posting selfies with love heart shaped sunglasses with a cringey song lyric attached, Bebo is around and everyone is sharing ‘love’, MSN is the preferred method of communication. I was 15 in 2010, so I spent my early teens in this pre Instagram era, and I have to say, it was great. People weren’t too bothered about likes, you were really just using social media as it should be used and was originally intended – to be social. There were no such things as ‘influencers’ at this time, Facebook ads are around but they’re really nothing too spectacular and aren’t interrupting video content (although it was probably filmed on a Motorola Razr anyway). I’m sure there were some negative comments being thrown around, and as a teen we weren’t averted to having very public arguments on people’s statuses, however, there weren’t these extremely high ‘standards’ of beauty that we see around today.
2010 – 2015 AKA. The Beginning of the End
Whilst 15 year old me is having a great time on Facebook (RIP Bebo & MSN), Instagram launches. A platform purely made for photos and videos. Gone are the days of using social media to chat to your friends, instead it became about image and more importantly, how you looked. Fun fact: I actually refused to get Instagram from its launch in 2010 until 2013 because I was too scared to post anything – if that doesn’t say it all then I don’t know what will. The world became obsessed with like counts, filters and ‘living your best life’. We were no longer interested in ‘normal’ and those pictures of me and my friends at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, you had to look good. This was a huge shift (especially when aged 16/17/18) and brands capitalised on this immediately.
This is when influencers were born. Now, influencers weren’t an unknown concept, they had just never been used on social media before. We had Michael Jordan’s Nike endorsement in the 1980s and we’d already seen how TV shows and actresses could impact fashion, hair and beauty. But we hadn’t seen this shown so overtly on platforms with an average age demographic of 16-25. It’s important to note that around this time Youtube stars, particularly in beauty, are thriving – think Zoella and Tati Westbrook (GlamLifeGuru). Beauty standards are everywhere. The Kardashians are dominating TV with their reality show but are now killing Instagram too. You can follow every celebrity on Instagram, which you couldn’t do on Facebook. So now instead of your feed being filled with your friends and people that you know, all you see is – in my case – Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and the entire cast of Made in Chelsea. But these people are celebrities, they definitely don’t post selfies with heart shaped sunnies. And so the search for ‘perfection’ begins.
In this time brands are really just scratching the surface of what these ‘influencers’ (which actually became a dictionary approved term in 2016) really could do. Predominantly based in beauty and fashion, influencers were partnering with brands and really influencing their followers into purchasing their products. All Kim Kardashian had to say was how amazing certain products were and they would sell out. Again, this notion of people influencing purchasing decisions has always been around, just think of the great Blackberry trend of 2010 – 2012. But instead of being influenced by your friends, you were now being influenced by celebrities who were being paid to endorse products, whether they liked them or not.
These kind of social ads – ‘sponsored posts’ or how they’re now known, #ads – were so new that there really wasn’t much guidance around and influencers could post about whatever they wanted and not really see any repercussions. Introducing the rise of weight loss ads. It wasn’t enough that we all wanted a teeny tiny waist and a thigh gap because of what we saw on Instagram, but we were now being told that celebrities did it by drinking … detox tea? Their hair was long and shiny because they ate hair gummies every day? Not only was most of this completely false, but the impact that this had on body positivity was enormous. Every teen was being told indirectly that the only way to look beautiful was to look like a celebrity, and to do that you had to take this or eat this or not eat this. Social media became a minefield for eating disorder triggers and mental health deterioration.
2016 – 2018 Social Media is Booming
By now, Facebook has been around for over 10 years and Instagram has hit 1 billion users in 8 years. We’re now solidly in influencer territory. The majority of the posts that you see are from influencers and you’re seeing more and more perfect people rise up to join the ‘micro influencer’ and ‘macro influencer’ ranks, and everything in between. Anyone that has been on any reality TV show is now sponsoring everything and Love Island is only fueling this more. We’re seeing ‘perfection’ on a daily basis. Everyone’s bodies are looking tiny and toned and you’re sat looking at yourself wondering why you’ll never look like that. You’ve taken the teas, you’ve eaten the hair gummies and you’ve definitely done the juice cleanse and you still don’t have Kylie’s bum? Something must be wrong …
Slowly the mindset starts to shift.
Your average Instagram user is now slowly saying … hold on, surely that’s a filter. Surely, that’s a lie. Surely, that can’t be true. Surely, she doesn’t actually use that product.
This is when the ASA starts to hammer down on what these previously unrestricted influencers could promote. We see skinny tea ads being banned, and there are rules on how you must declare that it is advertising and you are being paid to promote that product. The veil is, slowly but surely, being lifted, and a lot of that is thanks to brands for pushing promotions so much that the audience became too aware. There are a couple of ‘new’ influencers starting up that are really speaking out on this fake side of being an influencer, but they’re mainly being drowned out.
Despite this slight shift, brands are finding ways around the new rules and regulations, and influencers are so popular now that no one really cares whether what they’re saying is true or not. The top and bottom of it is that they look amazing, right? Maybe not.
2019 – Now. Body Positivity is Coming Back
Now I’m definitely not saying that body positivity isn’t an issue anymore. But what I am saying is that we have come a very long way from the absolute nightmare of 2010 – 2015. The ASA rules are getting stricter by the day, and you can’t go on the BBC News website without seeing another brand being punished for promoting x,y and z. But there has been a big shift.
We are no longer seeing just fashion and beauty influencers, we are seeing influencers for everything. Be it cooking, fitness, even cleaning. There are influencers everywhere and their power definitely hasn’t gone. Brands have just had to change tack. Yes, there are definitely still BoomBod ads around, heaven forbid, however we are seeing a huge rise in more conscious advertising.
The body positive influencers that were slowly creeping in during 2016 and 2018 are now massive. We’re talking Chessie King, Alice Liveing, Steph Elswood, Malin Andersson, Connie Simmonds, and that’s just to name a few. And these influencers are actually influencing things that they should be influencing: happiness, body positivity, self love, mental health, eating healthy, loving your body and appreciating all the things that it does for you. From the very start, the power of the influencer should never have been underestimated, but it should have been used for good. Real life stories of real life people with real life bodies giving real life advice and recommendations. That is what social media ‘influencers’ should be about. These influencers are really paving the way to normalise ‘normal’ bodies. Yes, you can take one amazing picture, but it is the 60 outtakes that every girl can relate to.
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3 years ago, my newsfeed was a sea of perfection … & I was not just swimming in it, I was a shark. I was a shark scaring people out of the water, posting unachievable ‘perfect’ pictures, posey-posing like the left WITHOUT any of the right. No one wants to be swimming with sharks; they’re not super friendly, they’re intimidating & you can’t get close to them. I look back at old photos, posts from 3 years ago & see a completely different Chessie – a Chessie who cared more about looking good than doing good. A ‘what were you thinking, why were you adding to the problem’ It was a classic case of monkey see, monkey do. That was Instagram back then. No squishy bits. No wobbly bits. No transparency, vulnerability or raw gritty bits. No body celebration. Just everyone’s ‘favourite’ bits – of ourselves & of our lives. So… I really want to say sorry. I am sorry to anyone that followed sharky old me 3 years ago when I just posted photos like the left. I am sorry if I made you feel like you weren’t good enough. I am sorry I was a bit of a dick – not just to myself or to my body but to YOU.
We can see this movement, not only on social media, but on TV and print ad campaigns, with plus size models now being featured. There is however, still a huge way to go, with companies still receiving backlash for not actually using plus size models.
Social Media is New
Social media is a relatively new phenomenon, and I think we can forget that. Of course there are going to be hiccups, or mountains, along the way. Instagram has only just been going for 10 years and the term influencer was only officially coined in 2016. But we are learning. And we are getting better.
The top and bottom of it, remember that social media is a snapshot. Everybody’s life could look perfect online if they wanted it to. You don’t need to follow the Kardashians to fit in if they really damage your mental health and you definitely don’t need to drink that detox tea to be skinny. Focus on being healthy and happy.