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How Social Media Can Actually Improve Body Image

A substantial body of research has linked the use of social media – specifically: Facebook and Instagram – to poorer body image among women, particularly those under the age of 25. Since an estimated 90% of individuals aged 18 to 29 and 77% of adults aged 30-49 report regularly using social media, the risk of experiencing a dip in body image satisfaction (and potentially feeling inclined towards eating disordered behavior or compulsive exercise as a result) remains high for many consumers. Exposure to thin- and/or fit-ideals that (intentionally or not) encourage the pursuit of a body type different from that which one possesses has been found to lower self-esteem and darken the moods of viewers.

At the same time, several studies have elucidated factors that protect and bolster body image, mood, and self-esteem. Chief among them: Self-compassion, which involves adopting a more accepting view of oneself with an understanding that so-called ‘flaws’ or ‘mistakes’ are natural and inevitable aspects of being human. Women who report higher levels of self-compassion, for instance, tend to report lower shame about their bodies as well as fewer instances of comparing their bodies to others and less preoccupation with how they look overall. Studies have also demonstrated a strong inverse relationship between self-compassion and eating disordered behavior — meaning when one goes up in frequency or intensity, the other goes down.

Aware of the protective effect that self-compassion can have upon women’s body image as well as the relationship between social media consumption and poor body image, researchers from the University of the West of England sought to explore whether associating various images found on social media with hashtags and slogans promoting self-compassion would buffer women’s self-esteem and body image from being dragged down.


Psychologists Amy Slater, Neesha Varsani, and Phillippa C. Diedrichs recruited 160 women between the ages of 18 and 25 to peruse (unbeknownst to them) fictitious instagram accounts displaying several types of images: “appearance-neutral” (consisting of interior design images), “fistpiration” (containing young, lean, and toned women in tight workout clothes), “self-compassion” (containing quotes conveying self-acceptance of one’s flaws overlaid onto a decorative or floral background) and “fitspiration” combined with “self-compassion” (containing 15 the “fitspiration” images followed by five “self compassion” images). Each image contained an appropriate, indicative hash tag (such as #fitspo or #innerbeauty).

The women participants were split into several groups: A control group who only saw the neutral images and several experimental groups who either saw solely fitspiration images, solely self-compassion images, or fitspiration images combined with self-compassion images. All subjects were assessed via various measurement tools for their levels of body satisfaction, body appreciation, self-compassion, and negative mood before and after exposure to these different types of images.

Contrary to what Slater and her colleagues expected, being exposed to fitspiration images did not result in a statistically significant decrease in body image or mood when compared to the effects of being exposed to neutral images. However, viewing fitspiration images did appear to result in a significantly decreased level of self-compassion following the experiment (as compared to the effects of viewing neutral images). “This finding might be explained by the fact that fitspiration images and hashtags often reference or imply the need for self-control and discomfort to achieve goals, and can therefore contain guilt-inducing messages,” Slater et al. explain in their recently published article in the journal Body Image entitled “#fitspo or #loveyourself? The impact of fitspiration and self-compassion Instagram images on women’s body image, self-compassion, and mood.”

Additional Findings

Slater’s team also found that women who perused self-compassion images scored higher in levels of body satisfaction, body appreciation, and self-compassion, while experiencing greater improvements in negative mood at the end of the study than women who perused neutral images. And in comparison to women who glanced at fitspiration only images, those who saw both fitspiration and self-compassion images also experienced comparable upticks following the viewing session. This effect was achieved despite how many fitspiration visuals (15 in total) the combined imagery group viewed relative to the number of self-compassion images (only five).

Because self-compassionate slogans encourage a more accepting and loving view of oneself, seeing them after or interspersed with fitspiration posts may attenuate the self-rejecting and self-comparing response that these latter images tend to engender. Thus “self-compassion,” Slater and her team conclude, “might offer a practical avenue for attenuating the known negative impact of social media on women’s body satisfaction.”

Your Own Social Media Habits

So how does this apply to your own social media habits? If you consistently feel worse about yourself after scrolling through pages of fitter, toner, thinner and possibly more airbrushed bodies than yours on Instagram, Facebook, or any other network you prefer, take a moment to track down some accounts that offer up slogans and imagery promoting a more loving and accepting view of yourself.

Adding the latter into the mix may help reduce the negative effects that exposure to thin and/or fit ideals can have on your emotional well being without requiring you to stay away from social media altogether. (If you don’t know where to start, follow the lead of Slater and her colleagues by doing a quick search for the hash tags #selfcompassion, #selflove).



Images Courtesy of iStock

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