By Nathalie Rappaport, a recent graduate of Exeter (BSc Clinical (applied) Psychology) and Bristol University (MSc Educational Psychology).
Nathalie is an avid rower, currently training with Boulogne 92 rowing club and lives and works in Paris. Nathalie’s own perceptions of body image were altered hugely by her sport, overcoming negative thoughts to believing strong is beautiful. In her article she describes how social media is fast becoming one of the strongest influences upon our wellbeing and how we should all educate ourselves in how to maintain our mental health, through this completely new environment of connections.
“As we go about our lives, our eyes are constantly on the move, taking in our surroundings, adverts on billboards and the people we encounter. When we look at other people, we instantly form a judgement based solely on their physical appearance – thin, large, beautiful, ugly, handsome, pretty. The same process occurs whilst scrolling on social media. I believe that this judgement triggers a negative self-perceptive mindset, worsened via social media, with its deceptive photo-editing.
We all know the sequence of events: See someone who we perceive as more attractive than us, consequently feel rubbish about ourselves, think of ways we can improve ourselves (weight loss, buying new clothes or make up), the thought of fixing ourselves becomes frustrating and expensive so then we begin to try to find bitchy faults with said ‘perfect’ person to make ourselves feel better…sound familiar? This competitive mindset is normalised and is responsible for many of the pressures we put upon ourselves. But most importantly, it is responsible for how we form relationships with ourselves and with others.
Toxic competitiveness is something that is deep rooted within our modern society, buried within the comparisons we frequently make between ourselves and others. With celebrities and influencers constantly reminding us of their ‘boujee’ and beautiful lives through their social media channels, we can sometimes find ourselves feeling that our lives and our looks are seemingly so dull in comparison. Especially now, during lockdown, the result of these influencers filling up our timelines can result in us buying products because we are persuaded to ‘improve’ and ‘align’ ourselves with the image created in the advert. Advertisers construct these pictures and videos cleverly, with admirable attention to – self-destructive attitude inducing – detail, to ensure that they attack our insecurities and consequently encourage us to ‘problem solve’ and buy their beautifying products. In addition, if you are a woman, you make up 70-80% of the consumer market. This makes us the most vulnerable targets for adverts which target our self-worth AND our bank balances.
My perspective is that women (and increasingly, men too) feel pressured by society to be constantly in our most beautiful and desirable states which can steer us towards the self-destructive comparisons we make in our heads. We absolutely do not need to invest in products to make us look better, because we are doing just great as we are! However, we are constantly being told that in order to look good we must purchase… (insert 750 skin care items here for the ‘perfect daily skincare routine’). This is not a system where we will come out on top. We are NEVER going to be happy when we reach that ‘ideal’ body shape or lifestyle that is advertised because there will always be a new one, we’ll still feel the same.
I noticed this in myself when I looked back at old holiday pictures and thought ‘why the hell did I hate my body at that time?! I look amazing…I wish I had the confidence to appreciate myself back then’. I dug a little deeper and realised that it was never about my body being bad, it was the fact society was (not that I was aware of it at the time) telling me that I wasn’t good enough. My surroundings were constantly informing me via beauty adverts and magazine diet fads that something needed fixing or changing. This is a negative cycle that is fed by being a consumer in a capitalist society. This is something very difficult and unrealistic to change because, let’s face it, we all love to buy pampering products sometimes. However, we CAN try to change our mindset towards why we buy them. Looking at those holiday pictures, I felt sad for my younger self that I had wasted so much time hating my body and being super self-conscious when really, I should have felt comfortable in my body. We are wasting our precious time being more focussed on what we need to improve about ourselves rather than just being confident and happy with what we already have! We are good enough as we are and no one should be allowed to make us feel any less than that. We have the freedom to consciously try to reject diet culture and immerse ourselves into body positivity, mindfulness and wellbeing discussions on social media. This is something I have tried to open my mind to, in order to learn what the past me should have had – self-acceptance.
With each advert we consume, we become further drawn into a system that is in fact exploiting us by triggering toxic competitiveness. This can be a direct effect of misogyny. This idea that we must be in constant competition with one another is capitalism’s way of ensuring we never stop investing in the game – buying their products when we feel threatened to try to be ‘better’. In Beyonce’s song, Flawless, she includes a speech from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which explains how competitiveness is a sexist issue:
|‘We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
“You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man”
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
|Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes’
This is one of my favourite feel-good songs, showing us that Beyonce is also sick of misogyny induced ‘norms’! Some of this speech may appear to be a little outdated now, as most of us in the UK in 2021 are not told that we should aspire to marriage above all else anymore. However, I am quite sure that, as women, we will be asked more often about making space for marriage and children within our careers than men will be. The traces of this sexist mindset are still lingering in our society and the effects they have are still prevalent. I am not saying that wanting to get married is a bad thing at all, it is simply not a priority for everyone or a prerequisite to eternal happiness.
In order to reject our negative competitive thoughts and engage in self-accepting behaviours, we need to catch ourselves out and ACTIVELY make ourselves aware of what we are choosing to see online (and in real life). If we tune in to how we feel after we have been on a particular Instagram page, or after having spent time with a particular friend and amend our choices accordingly, it will become apparent that not everyone has a positive influence on us. If we are frequently feeling insecure with a partner, or with a friend, are they someone who deserves a place in our lives as significant as we are currently offering them? Often spending time with the wrong person can really make us alter our self-perceptions and our perceptions of others. When we break up (even a friend break-up) with that person, we realise how wrong we really were… pretty scary stuff!
Due to the normalization of toxic competitiveness in our society (when used against women – internalised misogyny), these comparisons can occur without us even knowing it. Our inner voices are built upon standards set by what we frequently see represented in our online and physical environments. If we are judging others harshly, it is a sure-fire sign that we are also applying these same harsh thoughts to ourselves – via our inner voice. We listen to our inner voice ALL day, EVERY day, and therefore we should respect the fact that it is a very powerful tool. If our inner voice can become kinder to ourselves, we become kinder in our judgements of others too. This is a hugely important step towards developing a celebratory rather than competitive mindset. A helpful way to think about it is: would you say the things you say to yourself, to a friend? For me, that would be a no! Trying to catch this negative self- talk and regulate it is tricky, but it can be done. Developing a celebratory mindset is something that can help us indulge less in self-depreciation, and consequently, appreciate our beautiful selves more!
Cultivating a kinder inner voice is something I am still working on and I have found that following more social media accounts that focus upon body positivity, wellbeing and mindfulness, has really helped me try to achieve this. I am grateful to these accounts because they open my eyes daily to new perspectives and new self-care methods, for free! Training my inner voice to be kinder is still very much a work in progress, but I feel as though I am getting there with the help of my close friends and a community of Instagram accounts who share similar goals and beliefs! Altering who I allow myself to be influenced by has changed my entire perception of body image and beauty standards. Sure, sometimes I still have days or weeks where I go back a few steps, but generally, I have found this shift in perception to be life-changing.
One of the main reasons for my social media purge was because a lot of content posted by pages I was following (Kim Kardashian, ex Love Island stars etc) had been modified in some way (Facetune, a flattering filter or straight up Adobe photoshop). This alteration was often not disclosed which meant that I was misinformed for the comparisons that I was inevitably going to make (because, who wouldn’t?!). The effect that editing and filters have on our social media space is that they dangerously narrow the diversity of images we see to ‘perfect’ images only. This is not real life and it is often quite difficult to detach our expectations from these images.
We all know that the most popular bodies to be shown in the media are very slim, petite, young women and tall, muscular men. However, the average size for women in the UK is a size 16 which, according to ‘traditional’ views of femininity, is seen as ‘Plus-Size’. The average height for men is 5’9”, which is again, traditionally, not deemed as tall for men. 70% of the world’s population is non-white, whereas the most consistent colour of person we see in beauty advertisements have light skin. Why does the media repeatedly represent such a small % of the realistic demographics in mainstream publications? The reason: our society deems thinness, whiteness and being able-bodied as the ideal. This must change.
However, increased diversity within advertising and body positive attitudes are things I can see slowly becoming more popular on the social media platforms that I follow. There are now more influencers posting ‘posed vs non posed’ images, to be more transparent about how much an image can be altered by body position, lighting and a filter. For example, the #filterdrop movement, started by make-up artist and model, Sasha Pallari. Sasha has helped to make it a law that influencers in the UK can no longer use a filter on posts advertising beautifying products. This is because often it is impossible to tell whether a filter has been used, therefore making the posts misleading and frankly downright damaging! This direct misrepresentation of reality causes young people to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. A study by Girlguiding reports that 1/3 of young women do not feel confident to post online without using a correcting filter! The #filterdrop movement is encouraging people to post their selfies without the ‘Paris swipe’ that is so easily added on Instagram, to normalise seeing unfiltered skin on our social media channels. This is something that is so encouraging to see and such a positive influence which has finally made its way into the mainstream media.
The way to achieve change in body perceptions is to give more media attention to bodies of different sizes, shapes, colours and identities. This is something that has been so hugely lacking until recent years and consequently has shaped which bodies we find desirable. Consequently, our own perceived proximity to these palatable, perfect and heavily broadcasted bodies, dictate whether we can be happy in their own skin. The solution: diversify the bodies we see in public media!
Surrounding myself with people on social media who encourage a body positive mindset was how I cemented a more body positive attitude for myself. How others respect themselves and others, is contagious and this includes those around us online too! As a teenager, my Instagram was full of celebrities being praised for shedding excess pounds and shamed for putting them on, pages promoting plans titled: ‘Exercises to get rid of thigh fat’. These are both toxic and absolute fake news. No one can obtain those results that fast, or achieve targeted fat loss, as that is actually scientifically impossible. When we are interacting predominantly with Instagram, rather than real people due to COVID, these people shape our inner voice because they are the people we have the most frequent contact with.
For me, I realised that a lot of my negative thoughts about other women were based around my own body image hang ups. This comes as no surprise due to the prevalent diet culture of the early 2000s. Although I was never under the illusion that I was overweight, back then I firmly believed that my body was unconventional and unattractive because I did not perceive myself as matching these popular beauty standards. This caused deep-rooted insecurities about myself. This was improved no end by joining the rowing team at University. Before rowing, I had never before seen my body as a tool for athleticism. I had always seen my body as an enemy, to be constantly fought with, needing adjusting and shrinking to fit into the smallest clothing sizes. I had also never been immersed within a group of women who celebrated the strength of their bodies before, which was such a significantly positive influence for me. This shift from seeing my body as an aesthetic to a useful powerhouse was due to having the opportunity to train with such supportive groups of women, with great coaches. These groups taught me to respect my body and be thankful for my height, broad shoulders and strong thighs, and not to fight against them.
I am aware being part of a sports club such as rowing is a huge privilege, which at the moment is quite difficult to do due to COVID. However, most clubs and University clubs are running online group fitness sessions and virtual socials to try to stay connected during lockdown.
So, we are not all rolling around Dubai in our Bentleys like the influencers this pandemic? This does not mean that we should feel unworthy and dull. That woman in the magazine has seemingly perfect skin and glossy, beautiful hair? This does not make us any less beautiful as we are. We are worthy and we exist without need for correction and fixing. It is so important to focus our minds on rejecting negative influences in our lives and make room for new ones. Exposing ourselves to new perspectives via social media broadens our minds to alternative mindsets, ideas and routines which in my opinion, are rarely a bad thing. We all invest in our own personal grooming on different levels and this is in itself a diversity that should be respected. I am not saying there is anything wrong with wanting to feel glamorous and well groomed, but I think that we should be conscious about why we desire to invest in beautifying products and the effect that they have on our mental health. If all of us simultaneously decided to be happy with our bodies, as they are, think how many companies would go bust.
Instagram follow suggestions:
@lucymountain – body positivity and acceptance with a light-hearted and entertaining twist on rejecting diet culture. Non-punitive exercise.
@alexlight_ldn – body confidence & anti-diet, help to love our bodies.
@ellessechar – feminism, LGBTQ+ and racial equality activism.
@julesvonhep – male body positive and acceptance alongside self-care awareness.
@jaimmykoroma – body positive fitness + lifestyle.
@sassy_latte – body politics and racial justice.
@munroebergdorf – feminism, LGBTQ+ and racial equality activism.
@sophjbutler – disabled awareness and empowering women.
@florencegiven – feminism, LGBTQ+ and racial equality activism with inspiration for self-empowerment and lifting eliminating internalised misogyny.
@jameelajamilofficial – feminism, LGBTQ+ and racial equality activism.
@lizzobeeating – body positivity and music.
@danaemercer – self-love and ‘real’ angles.
@matthaig – author and mental health activist.
@chessiekingg – self-love and body acceptance.
@the.holistic.psychologist – self-help and mindfulness .
@em_clarkson – self-love, feminist and positive body image content.
@megan_rose_lane – empowerment and mindset mentor.
@bodyposipanda – body positivity and author.
@celestebarber – humorous take on rejecting body norms and a focus on representing real people.
@sydneylbell – curve model and self-love.
@hayleymadiganfitness – body positive fitness and women’s health coach.
@_nelly_london – self-love, confidence and eating disorder recovery.
@mikzazon – eating disorder friendly exercise and positive body image.
@rianne.meijer – insta vs reality, entertaining take on mocking the ‘ideal’.
@stephelswood – self-love, chef, body positive exercise and eating disorder recovery.
@victroiagarrick – mental health and body image relating to student athletes.
@glorioussport – elevating women’s sport through art.
@thelevelplayingfield – inclusive sports blog and content focussing on equal representation within sports.
@lottiedyan – IBS and bloating advice, body positive mental health awareness.
@jamie_s_margolin – Jewish LGBTQ+ activist.
@cheerupluv – anti sexual harassment.
@womenintheworld – women as powerful leaders, rule changers and activists.
@sportingmindsuk – charity providing free 1:1 mental health support for young UK athletes.
@voiceinsport – elevating the voices of female athletes.
@thepositiveminds – empowering quotes to improve your day.
@africabrooke – mindset coach & consultant.
@bodyimagemovement – body image, self-acceptance