Social Media vs. Self-Confidence: A 21st Century Crisis
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Unattainable beauty standards are not exclusive to the 21st century. The ancient Greeks thought only women with proportionate faces had a beautiful mind; the Qing mandated footbinding for any woman seeking marriage; and Hollywood incessantly promoted actresses, like Marilyn Monroe, who were forced to be in full glam at every waking moment. Today platforms like Instagram and TikTok have made friends and celebrities all the more accessible. Thus, unattainable beauty standards have become more directly publicized to people, specifically young girls, complicating an already multifaceted issue.
According to the Social Issues Research Center (SIRC), 50 percent of 13-year-old girls are extremely unsatisfied by their appearance. By the time they turn 18 or older, 80 percent are unsatisfied. The SIRC found that the most successful female supermodels today weigh a fraction of what the average woman weighs. These models, whether they’re on the runway or social media, are the same people who young girls admire for having perfect abs or hourglass figures. While five percent of women have a body type that follows these lofty beauty standards, young girls grow up believing this specific look is the only beautiful body frame.
As a teenage girl living in New York City, I’m no stranger to this concept. I’ve found myself stuck on an influencer’s page for hours, zooming in on each picture, wondering how she could possibly look like that, while lying in my bed wearing sweatpants and eating a cookie. It’s difficult to remember that a celebrity’s social media page is a compilation of her highlights, produced by professional photographers, staged lighting, hair and makeup artists, dietitians, plastic surgeons, and so much more. Social media lacks transparency, so a girl’s first instinct is to compare her own “behind the scenes” to that celebrity’s highlights.
Influencers would greatly reduce their negative impact if they broke their silence and opened up about the realities of their appearance on social media. The problem doesn’t lie in the fact that celebrities get plastic surgery. The real problem lies in the dishonesty they hide behind. The Kardashians, for example, are arguably the most influential fashion and beauty icons of our generation; they shifted the focus of social media from runway to Instagram models and built a brand heavily reliant on their physical features. While the Kardashians promote confidence through self-expression, it’s upsetting that they allow young girls to believe their facial features and body shape are completely natural. If the Kardashians took the initiative to clarify that they have had cosmetic surgery done, then a wave of other influencers would do the same. This would minimize girls’ unattainable expectations of looking like Kylie Jenner or Kim Kardashian solely through dieting and working out.
In fact, one of social media’s most detrimental impacts has been the normalization of eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Association reports almost half (47 percent) of school girls in America feel encouraged to lose weight based on the body types they see represented in magazines. As unbelievable as the statistic may sound, this reality doesn’t shock me. I’m 16 years old and know more girls who have struggled with their relationship with food than girls who haven’t. The constant comparison, whether it be self-inflicted or generated by strangers, takes a toll on girls’ mental and physical state. TikTok, a relatively new and widely popular video sharing platform, is filled with girls boasting salads, smoothies, and 1,200 calorie meal plans. Many young girls are promoting workout plans publicized as burning 700 calories in an hour. The people running TikTok should take the initiative to remove videos that could be triggering to teenage girls. This isn’t an impossible feat or a crazy request, considering comments on these videos describe the unhealthy and triggering nature of the content. It’s saddening to know that girls even younger than me are meticulously analyzing their bodies and doing whatever it takes to fit society’s beauty standards, regardless of the long-term impacts it may have on them.
In the past few years, there has been an increased representation of diverse body types and facial features. Ashley Graham became the first plus-size model on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2016, and Winnie Harlow became the first Victoria Secret Angel with the skin condition vitiligo, which leaves patches of her skin without pigment. As opposed to the 1950s, we have the ability to promote women on platforms other than the movie screen. Hopefully, social media will stay on this route and turn into a place where we honor diversity, and not where we celebrate certain types of beauty over others.
Supermodel Emily Ratajkowski has an insightful outlook that sums up everything there is to say on this issue. She writes: “I have discovered the parts of me that are so much more important than ‘sexiness,’ but if you’re a 14-year-old girl reading this, don’t worry about any of that for now. Read lots of books and know that what you see on Instagram is just a very small fraction of complete and beautifully complex human beings.”