Appearance Ideals, Culture, and Social Media

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By lab members Kerri Mazur, Sabrina DiBisceglie, and Kristen Pasko

As we described in last week’s post, body ideals differ across time periods. But femininity, beauty, and what it “means” to be a woman also differs between cultures. An Asian woman may have differing views on what constitutes physical beauty compared to an African American woman, for example. A culture may have beauty ideals that rest in the cosmetic realm of highly coveted facial features and smooth, porcelain-like skin. Other cultures may base their ideals of beauty entirely on body shape, such as what seems to be the case in North America and much of western Europe. And the “ideal” body differs based on cultural norms, with African Americans preferring a more curvy figure to the thin ideal of Caucasians. In Africa, a practice known as scarification is common in some tribes, which facial scars representing beauty.

italy_taggedThe idea of cultural differences is presented in “Perceptions of Perfection,” a fascinating project conducted by the UK-based online pharmacy Superdrug Online Doctors. The project began with images of the same woman, modified to represent a physical ideal (based on body weight, shape, or BMI) from different countries around the world. The modified images were constructed with input from both male and female designers from each respective country. The colombia_taggedcountries that indicated an ideal representing underweight BMI measurements were China and Italy (in contrast to countries like Colombia, pictured here). This conveys a strong message to women, especially young women, about standards of beauty and what to strive for.

Importantly, China is home to over one billion people, which means that the ideals presented in the media – including social media – reach an incredible number of women. The potential for body ideals to be communicated through social media, and for these ideals to have behavioral consequences, is evident in a recent study. This study showed 42% of adult social media users in the U.S. said that information found on social media “would affect (their) health decisions related to diet, exercise, or stress management.” Moreover, nearly 90% 18 to 24-year-olds said that they “trust medical information found on social media.” Medical information includes any posts that implicitly or explicitly comment on health behaviors reinforce certain body ideals.

As social media is seen as a credible source of health information, we need to improve our understanding of how certain posts in this domain affect social media users. (See here for a research institute devoted to this topic!) It is becoming clear that #fitspiration posts can result in both positive and negative consequences, and it appears that motivation for viewing these posts is a key factor in their effects. Stay tuned for more on this topic, on our page next week!

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An Introduction to #Fitspiration

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By lab members Kristen Pasko, Kerri Mazur, and Sabrina DiBisceglie

Depictions of female appearance ideals have long been portrayed in the media, such as movies, TV, and magazines. These ideals have meaningful (and usually negative) effects on women’s body satisfaction and eating behaviors, and have received a great deal of research attention as a result. Examining the role of appearance ideals and the sources of idealized messages can be helpful for preventing and intervening against negative body image and disordered eating behaviors.

Recently, social media has become the main platform for communicating these ideals, especially Instagram. More than half of teens and young adults use Instagram, and many rely on it as a source of health information. Unlike previous trends toward extreme ideals of thinness (i.e., #thinspiration), the recent trend of #fitspiration portrays strong and muscular women as the ideal body image.

#Fitspiration posts usually promote exercise and healthy eating, but sometimes focus on the appearance benefits of a healthy lifestyle rather than the health benefits themselves. For example:

Images from a #fitspiration blog which promote exercise and defined muscles.
Click here to visit a #Fitspiration blog

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Marilyn Monroe

The ideal female body has changed over time, from a full figure to the hourglass (actresses like Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s) to extreme thinness (models like Twiggy in the 1970s). It is possible that these body types were idealized because many people could compare themselves to them and see similarities, or because they were inspired by them to change. Decades of research on appearance-based social comparisons indicate that many women experience

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Twiggy

negative consequences of viewing images of the appearance ideal, including body dissatisfaction and desire to diet or exercise. Though not all women (or men) respond negatively to these images – indeed, #fitspiration exists because social media users appear to find others’ appearance and fitness success inspiring.

What leads some people to be inspired by #fitspiration, and others to be discouraged? Motivation for viewing images and related content (such as blogs) may be a key factor in deciding how #fitspiration will affect an individual. In our next post, we will explore this motivation in more detail. Look for our follow-up next week!

UofSHealthPsych Welcomes Leah Schumacher to Campus

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leah1On September 20, 2016 the Health Psychology Research Team and the Psychology Club welcomed Leah Schumacher, M.S. to talk about her research and clinical experiences. Leah is currently a Ph.D candidate in clinical psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Leah’s visit featured a talk on her research into behavior lapses and difficulty with healthy eating and exercise. Before the main event, our research team was treated to a conversation about Leah’s experiences with graduate school and exploring a career path that was right for her. Leah shared her own journey with us: she explained how her  path did not take her exactly where she planned, but each experience helped lead her to a career that she is excited about. We learned the importance of finding your own path, and considering master’s degree programs to help hone in on your interests before the substantial commitment of a Ph.D. or other doctoral-level program.

Leah explained that choosing a grad program leah3is not the end of your path, and there will be opportunities to change in the future if your career goals change. (This was a relief to us!) We learned that it is important to get experiences in a variety of settings because that can help you discover what is right for you. She talked about how the best way to know if you want to pursue a particular career is when you go out into the field and try it. You may find that your experience does not match your expectations. She gave an example of working at a substance use treatment facility; although she valued the experience, it taught her that working with substance use isn’t quite right for her. An important take away message from this conversation was to make sure you try things you think you won’t like, because that could end up being what you like the most.

During this conversation, we distinguished between graduate programs in psychology and related fields. For example, the differences between programs in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or social work. She also explained the differences between a masters program versus a Ph.D. program. Ph. D programs are highly competitive, and you should not be discouraged if you do not get accepted your first time applying. We discussed that picking the best program for you should take precedence over “the best program” in other people’s minds.

 

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Leah speaking to UofSHealthPsych, the Psychology Club, and other student guests.

After this session came Leah’s main talk, which was attended by our lab, Psychology Club members, and other interested students. Leah presented her research on “lapses” after starting a behavior change effort and how they affect people who are trying to live healthier lifestyles. Specifically, she explained that behavioral lapses occur when individuals set goals to follow a behavior modification plan and then experience a slip back to their old behavior. Some people will experience a lapse for a day or so and then continue working towards their goal, while others will quit entirely. Research in this area looks to explain the psychological contributors to behavioral lapses. Leah brought to our attention the scarcity of research in this area and the opportunities for new discoveries.

Everyone who attended the talk gained beneficial information. This included information regarding graduate school and career paths, but also on health psychology research that could be helpful for improving behavior change treatments. Overall it was a valuable learning experience for all those involved. We thank Leah for sharing her research and personal experiences with us!

Learn more about Leah’s research team at Drexel. Contributors to this post were Zuhri Outland, Kristen Pasko, Marissa DeStefano, and Dr. Arigo.