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Body image and social media: This is the real impact “Instagram vs. reality” posts have on our mental health

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Lauren Geall
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New research has revealed that “Instagram vs. reality” style comparison posts could help to disrupt the negative effects on body image often caused by social media.

We’re all well aware of the dangerous effect social media can have on our mental health. Thanks our impulse to compare ourselves to others, scrolling through our social media feeds – where we’ll often be presented with flawless photos of our favourite celebrities and photographs of our friends living their #bestlife in some glamorous destination – has become a bit like a digital minefield. 

Why? Because whether or not we’re already feeling low, seeing everyone else having the best time and looking ‘perfect’ is enough to make even the most confident among us feel bad about themselves from time to time.

Of course, one of the biggest issues with social media is the impact it’s having on our body image. Thanks to an influx of accessible editing apps and clever filters, our social media feeds are often jam-packed with images which promote unrealistic or ‘perfect’ body types – a phenomenon which leads us to feel more self-critical towards ourselves, as a wide variety of studies have shown.

It’s worth mentioning that social media platforms are working to do something about this – in the last year, Instagram has introduced policies which restrict content related to weight loss products, dieting brands and cosmetic procedures, as well as banning augmented reality (AR) filters which depict or promote plastic surgery. But the harmful images – those that present a certain ‘norm’ when it comes to our body types – are much harder to regulate, especially when many of the images are not posted with bad intentions.

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In the fight back against this worrying trend, influencers and celebrities alike have begun to tackle the unrealistic nature of the bodies represented on Instagram by using the hashtag #instagramvsreality. As part of the trend, users upload two photos – one Instagram-esque ‘perfect’ shot beside another, real-life equivalent – and compare them by placing them side-by-side.

Now, a new study has revealed the power such images have to limit the impact social media posts have on our mental health. As part of the study, a group of women were randomly assigned to view one of three sets of images: “Instagram vs reality” images, the ‘ideal’ side alone or the ‘real’ side alone. When women viewed either the real or comparison posts, researchers found that the identification or complete avoidance of the ‘perfect’ images as fake could “disrupt the comparison process,” reducing the negative impact on body image and actually decreasing body dissatisfaction. 

“Results suggest that the popular quote ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’… has some truth to it,” Renee Engeln writes for Psychology Today. “However, it seems to matter who the target of your comparison is. We may have more luck accepting our own bodies if we see more realistic and diverse representations of other bodies in our social media feeds.

“By following users who regularly challenge the frequent phoniness of Instagram posts, we can practice appreciating the diversity of human bodies and perhaps learn to appreciate our own bodies along the way.”

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It’s clear that the people we follow and interact with on social media are just as important as the amount of time we spend on the platform when it comes to our mental health. Social media platforms can be a great place to join a new community and surround yourself with like-minded, positive people who are good for your mental health – the hard part is identifying when the people you follow are having a detrimental effect on your wellbeing.

With criticism on the rise, it’s about time we reclaim spaces on social media to create a more positive experience. Next time someone on social media makes you feel bad about yourself, take the time to evaluate whether following that person is really worth it, and seek those accounts that make you feel good instead – no one needs extra negativity in their life.

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Lauren Geall

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