The Future of #Fitspiration

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By Kristen Pasko, Kerri Mazur, and Sabrina DiBisceglie

In our series on #fitspiration, we have explored what it is, how it applies to different cultures and races, and its pros and cons. You can find #fitspiration posts on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Instagram is a major hotspot, with over 9.8 million images tagged as #fitspiration. This aspect of social media allows us to connect to others, even those we have not met in person. Though this ability is generally seen as positive, there is a flip side. Some users may post content that is potentially indicative of mental illness, and there has been a movement to help users who may feel they are unheard by those in their personal lives. In light of this, it is important to discuss what has been done in response to fitspiration. In 2015, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram attempted to censor material related to eating disorders, especially #thinspiration content, and provide warnings to users who might come in contact with it. However, material was still relatively easy to access, due to loose guidelines.

Some researchers believe social media could be helpful in spreading positive messages and helping people with mental illness. One 2015 study suggests that positive emotional expression spreads through social media platforms to a greater degree than negative emotional expression. Therefore, if you see a positive post, you are more likely to post something positive as well. By the same token, one 2016 study proposes that computational methods can use characteristics such as the colors of a photo filter and the amount of people in posts to identify those with symptoms of a depressive disorder. These methods were even more effective than talking with general practitioners. Such findings could have important implications for the future of mental health testing and diagnosis, in addition to improved and more cost-efficient treatment.

So what were some of these specific characteristics that were related to mental health? filterPhotos of depressed individuals received fewer likes; they tended to be darker (blue and gray, void of artificial light), and have fewer faces per photo. The characteristic of fewer faces is intuitive for a few reasons. First, depressed individuals are more likely to spend time in small social groups. Second, they are more likely to use self-focused language that might carry over into photos. Researchers from this study mentioned a need for further research on captions, comments, and tags.

Recently, Instagram added a new tool that allows someone to report a user they believe is at risk due to mental health symptoms. The person who posts the image will receive a pop-up message encouraging him or her to seek more support, if needed. Instagram worked with the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to develop these messages. Additionally, users receive a helpline and other mental health resources based on their current location. If users attempt to post with certain hashtags, like #thinspo, they will be redirected to a support page.

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Though many are excited about this new effort, it is important to question its implications and the potential for additional improvements. Some users may reject the resources because they deny having any distress. Some may not feel comfortable with their content being closely monitored. As a result, individuals may leave Instagram in fear of getting screened for mental illness. However, this tool, or a comparable one, could be advantageous if used with #fitspiration posts. It can provide motivation to the users that would benefit, and promote mental health resources for others. (We might still run into the problem of deciding what content would be helpful and harmful based on individual users, which deserves increased attention.)

Another way to take action is to spread awareness of the pros and cons of #fitspiration. If people are aware of the consequences #fitspiration, it may provide a user the opportunity to examine the function #fitspiration has on their life and adjust the content they view and post accordingly. There are popular Instagram fitness experts who already take responsibility in promoting the theme of “loving your body”. Linn Lowes is one such Instagram fitness guru who promotes exercise to enhance your own body instead of making your body look like someone else’s. Linn believes about being thin-shaming is just as much of an issue as fat-shaming. She also believes we shouldn’t focus on one fit body type; instead we should become the best and healthiest versions of ourselves.

The benefits and risks to #fitspiration are not so clear-cut. On one hand, there are many individuals who are likely to be find these posts to be inspiring and motivating, while others are likely to have unhealthy behaviors perpetuated by it. Social media platforms have made an effort to accommodate these differing individuals. Filtering and pop-up messages can ultimately help to reduce or even prevent the stigma surrounding mental illness and promote helpful resources for those suffering. It is important to explore further avenues to protect social media users, and these efforts support a future that reaches many individuals.

 

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Meet @UofSHealthPsych: Interview with Zuhri Outland

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Zuhri is a senior Psychology major who has worked with the Clinical Health Research Team for two years. She was interviewed by senior Marissa DeStefano.

UofSHealthPsych: Where are you from?zuhri

ZO: I’m from Scranton, I’m so basic.

UofSHealthPsych: Why did you choose Scranton?

ZO: I transferred here from another college. I chose Scranton because after having a bad experience at the other college, I wanted to come home. The U is close to home and I knew it was a good school. I heard good things about the school because I went to Scranton prep.

UofSHealthPsych: Why did you decide to major in Psychology?

ZO: Originally at my first college I was a genetic engineering major. When I transferred here I was a neuroscience major. Then, I took chemistry and it was a terrible adventure. I was taking Psyc 110 at the time with Dr. Kuhle, and he made psychology seem really cool and fun. From there my love of psychology took off.

UofSHealthPsych: What inspired you to join the Clinical Health Psychology Lab?

ZO: I had Dr. Arigo for abnormal psychology and I thought she would be great to work with, and I was interested in her research in health psychology when she talked about it in class. I wanted to take her health psychology course in the spring but I couldn’t, so I decided to join the lab instead.

UofSHealthPsych: What are some of the projects you are involved in?

kzscholarday2016ZO: I presented a poster at Student Scholar Day last semester with Kristen Pasko, which was about postmenopausal women’s exercise behaviors. This semester I’m really involved with Project CHASE – recruiting and running participants, managing data. I am currently working on my own research questions related to social aspects of health behavior.

UofSHealthPsych: What advice do you have for students who might be interested in research?

ZO: Start as early as possible. Go outside of what you think your interests are. Pay attention to professors and reach out to them.

UofSHealthPsych: What are you plans for after graduation? Future career goals?

ZO: I’m graduating in December, and next semester I will still be participating in the lab. I am currently applying to grad school for clinical social work programs. I want to be a clinical social worker so that I can do research and clinical work. I want to work with the adult population, people who are \20-50 years old. I’m still not sure exactly what setting I would like to work in.

UofSHealthPsych: What will you miss most about Scranton?

ZO: The people!

Pros and Cons of #Fitspiration

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By Kristen Pasko, Kerri Mazur, and Sabrina DiBisceglie

In our previous posts, we’ve discussed the potential for viewing #fitspiration posts to have either positive nor negative effects. As we have mentioned, some individuals are motivated by these images. For example, #fitspiration can inspire individuals who are beginning a journey of lifestyle change, and #fitspiration that aligns with the person’s health goals can help elicit positive outcomes (such as exercising and eating healthy, which prevents chronic disease and improves mood). People who view #fitspiration posts also might directly receive social support through group exercise, or indirectly because they see others engaged in exercise. In this way, #fitspiration posts can send the message that you’re not alone on your health journey.

Using the social environment, fit4either online or in person, is desirable in public health interventions. In group settings, people can give and receive support and make upward comparisons with the goal of self-improvement (which is one use of #fistpiration posts). A recent meta- analysis of studies looking at the effects of social media on health behavior change showed that including social media in interventions leads to decreased fat consumption.

Social media also acts as an educational tool. Posts can link to demonstration videos of workouts, healthy recipes, and overall health tips, this information can be readily available to a user in one domain. This is especially useful at the start of a lifestyle change in providing inspiration as well as a roadmap. Following steps in the form of a video or written in the caption of a photo, as well as using information provided by someone who is an expert or who has already gone through their own health journey, may provide a user with comfort and decrease the stress of not knowing what to do or where to start.

fit5#Fitspiration and similar uses of social media also can be beneficial for the person who does the posting. Posting can help you stay accountable for your progress and motivate ongoing healthy habits. In a 2015 study, survey respondents reported that the number of “likes” they receive on their exercise posts indicates other people’s acknowledgement of their progress. The more acknowledgement they receive for their posts, the more motivated they are to continue.

What about those who are negatively impacted? Individuals who have been diagnosed with an eating are more likely to view images of #fitspiration more often than those who do not have a diagnosis. Therefore, it is possible that these images may perpetuate body dissatisfaction that and disordered eating behaviors. For example, those with orthorexia experience a fixation on “healthy” eating behaviors and fitness-related activities, and often post about their habits on social media. When eating behaviors become restricted, exercise becomes punishment, and #fitspiration becomes an obsession, what once came from positive motivation can turn into a negative downward spiral. Another study found that those with mood disorders were more likely to view content related to fitness and dieting. So is it the content that increases the likelihood of these behaviors, or that people who already have mental health concerns are more likely to view this content?

A recent study suggested that Facebook use of just 20 minutes was associated with “maintenance of weight/shape concerns and state anxiety.” In addition, female users of fit6social media are more likely to participate in appearance-focused behavior like untagging themselves in pictures where they perceive themselves as less attractive than their friends, and are more likely to perceive responses from Facebook content as significant.

It appears that there are specific groups at risk for negative responses to #fitspiration and other trends on social media: those who show symptoms of an eating disorder, have a history of a mood disorder, or those with low self-esteem. It is clear, though, that with the various positive and negative potential outcomes, more research needs to be done on #fitspiration. In a future post we will discuss what has been done to increase safety on social media platforms and how that can be further improved!

Individual Differences in the Effects of #Fitspiration

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fit2By Kristen Pasko, Sabrina DiBisceglie, and Kerri Mazur

In a previous post, we mentioned that motivation for viewing #fitspiration posts affects how people respond to them. For example, if you have the goal of improving yourself, you are might feel motivated because you see these images and messages as achievable. But if you see yourself as already really similar to these images (or messages, such as the one displayed here), you might not dramatically change your fitness behaviors. On the other hand, if you don’t have a well-formed improvement goal and you believe that #fitspiration images are much fitter than you, you might feel dissatisfied with your body and be motivated to exercise or change your fitness routine. In this case, you might work harder to close this gap between the images and your body, even if you think that the image will be difficult for you to achieve.

We questioned whether these differences in motivation for viewing #fitspiration posts affect body satisfaction, depending on the length of exposure to the posts. Recent research among young women shows a trend that the effect of exposure changes over time. Seeing #fitspiration posts initially makes women more likely to evaluate themselves and feel worse about their bodies. For example, women report increased body dissatisfaction and decreased self-esteem after viewing #fitspiration posts. This could be a result of comparing themselves to the women in the pictures. However, if they continue to be exposed to posts over time, they are likely to decide to improve their bodies. On average, they are inspired to improve their fitness and diet regimens. In other words, the more you compare upward (to someone you thought someone else was more physically in shape than you), the more you might change your fitness habits. (It’s important to note that these are average changes, and that not everyone in the sample responded the same way over time.)

fit3So, does #fitspiration achieve its purpose – motivating women to become more fit? Researchers suggest limiting exposure to #fitspiration posts due to potential negative effects on self-esteem, which seems to happen at first. But some research shows that decreased self-esteem may be only temporary. If this is the case, is this risk worth changes in health behavior? It is clear that further research needs to be done on the effects of brief #fitspiration exposure compared to long-term or repeated exposure.

Besides motivation for viewing #fistpiration posts and length of exposure to posts, body composition seems to be related to the effect of #fitspiration. According to the NIH, women who are overweight (BMI that exceeds 25.0) tend to be more discouraged when viewing #fitspiration images than women in the normal weight category. Overweight women may have difficulty relating to the images, and see the fitness goals as unattainable. However, women of average weight looking to “tone up” or “drop a few pounds” find these images motivating because they are better able to envision themselves reaching these goals in the future.

A final individual difference in the effects of #fistpiration is self-esteem. Someone with lower self-esteem my find these images more discouraging than someone with higher self-esteem. The person with higher self-esteem may also pursue weight loss as a way to improve their health, and make positive changes for his or her life. However, an individual experiencing lower self-esteem may approach weight loss with a negative perception, which only fuels their already dampened self-esteem. In a follow-up post we will explore the pros and cons of #fitspiration!

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!

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!

The Body Problem

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Originally posted on March 8, 2014 by Dr. Arigo

Around 2005, I decided to focus my work on disordered eating behavior and body image. Like many college women, I saw this broad topic everywhere. In addition to concerns among family and friends, body image, eating, and weight were plastered all over the media (and critiques of the media). During my gap year, I worked on an eating disorders unit at a psychiatric hospital, and I doubt that I could have been any more immersed in these issues.

Given the chasm between treatment and research in eating disorders, I was fortunate that the cultural interest in eating and weight included in the empirical literature. Professional journals do succumb to trends, and it seemed that body image research was fashionable at the time. Some of the classics include Crandall’s examination of social contagion of binge eating and Becker’s description of introducing disordered behavior to a population by giving them televisions. To me, some of the most interesting work was in mapping the temporal relationships between mood state, social and self-perceptions, and eating behavior, using electronic daily diaries. (I have yet to contribute to this area, though it is on the agenda for my first few years in my new position.)

Although there still is much to learn about these relationships, the fervor for body-related topics seems to have died down in the past few years. The first clue regarding this change came from my students in Abnormal Psychology, around 2010. Until then, I had been very much aware of the negative stereotype of young women with eating disorders (see Wasted and Skinny Bitch, for examples). When I asked my students to describe the stereotype, they surprised me: many of them seemed not to share this perception (including males), and expressed compassionate, considerate attitudes toward all people with these disorders. I suspect there were several reasons for this disconnect, including a high SES student population. But it seemed that times were a’changin, and I was behind in my own field.

Much has changed in the past ten years. Obesity is a bigger problem than ever, and the innovative work of Brian Wansink and Kelly Brownell has shifted attention to macro-level problems such as the food environment and public health policy. My own work has broadened to include the full spectrum of eating and weight disorders, with a heavier emphasis on obesity, diabetes, and weight loss than on body image and disordered eating. I’m also much more interested in the science of eating behavior – and how eating can be manipulated – than in collections of symptoms. But as I continue to write and publish in body image and disordered eating, I realize that I am farther from the pulse of these topics than ever. For example, I’m currently working with a student to revise her Master’s thesis for publication – a clever approach to help young women combat their immediate negative responses to thin media figures. Yet the Introduction to the “problem” of negative body image features a preponderance of references to literature from the 1980s and 90s, with virtually nothing newer than 2004.

Have we solved the body problem while I wasn’t looking? Or, have we come to accept it as such a part of our culture that we’re no longer doing interesting, novel research on it? Perhaps neither, or a little of both. In retrospect, part of the appeal of this research in the late 90s and early 2000s was its novelty; women were first starting to speak out about their experiences and disclose the severity of the consequences. We do have better treatments than ever (e.g., the Body Project, CBT for bulimia nervosa), though there is more to be done to optimize them. Members of our society are aware of the problem and talk more openly about it than they used to. And as obesity wreaks physical and psychological havoc, more of our resources go to understanding problems of excess weight and overeating (e.g., binge eating disorder).

I’m pleased to see the increasing unification of the eating disorders and obesity fields. From both research and clinical perspectives, what makes eating so interesting to me is that we cannot live without it (unlike heroin), but there are so many ways that it can go awry. And it’s entirely possible that each of the distinct problems I’ve noted stem from the same central disturbance. For example, a recent paper in Psychosomatic Medicine demonstrated that, in both healthy weight and overweight women, exposure to degrading treatment of overweight individuals in media clips led to increases in salivary cortisol (a stress hormone). Interpretations can and should vary, until further research is shared. It suggests to me that among women, there is something universally anxiety-provoking about the negative overweight stereotype. Some of us avoid the immediate distress of it by eating more, and some of us take drastic measures to prevent it from becoming reality. At present, too little is known about the development of truly healthy mindsets and habits. Let’s hope that’s the next trend.