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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