How Social Media Can Shape a Girl’s Body Image
For years, parents have worried about the unrealistic way women are depicted in media, advertising, pop culture and even video games. Social media poses different challenges, largely because girls themselves are creating and commenting on their own images. This gives them tremendous power — and makes them hugely vulnerable. On platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, appearance can become a competitive sport as girls vie for emojis, likes and followers.
Selfies push girls to compare themselves with peers at their prettiest, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that the fastest way to get more likes is to be thin, skilled with make-up, dressed in revealing clothing or positioned in a provocative pose.
A recent survey by Common Sense Media found that, among teens who post online, 35 percent are worried about being tagged in unattractive photos, 27 percent feel anxious about their appearance in posted photos and a quarter take it personally when their photos are ignored.
Parents may not be able to dominate social media conversations about appearance, but they can and should comment. Girls need to hear from mothers who have come to terms with their own body issues and fathers who appreciate women for more than their faces and figures. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Don’t dismiss. For better or worse, people judge each other based on how they present themselves physically, so your daughter’s concerns about her looks are valid. And for girls who constantly see images that have been filtered and Photoshopped to match an ideal, puberty’s curves and pimples can feel like a crisis. Help your daughter think clearly about how much she allows herself to be influenced by what others think of her looks. Encourage her not to empower those who aren’t deserving. Help her understand that integrity, intelligence, sense of humor and compassion are more important than appearance.
Be aware of the awful. Yes, there really are pro-anorexia (“pro-ana”) and thinspiration (“thinspo”) websites that encourage girls to starve themselves and praise them when they post emaciated photos. Yes, girls post “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube and, perhaps unsurprisingly, attract the attention of trolls. Yes, there are apps like Hot or Not that exist simply to rate the physical attractiveness of users. Although many girls are turned off by these sites, others are susceptible to their appeal.
Point out possibilities. Social media gives girls opportunities to find allies who will encourage them to be themselves without conforming to others’ ideas about how they should look. Some girls even post “uglyselfies” — unadorned photos of themselves that mock conventional ideas about beauty. Others post photos that emphasize accomplishments or insights instead of appearance.
Critique photos. A photo can capture a “real” moment or it can be a performance. Talk to your daughter about how she chooses the photos she decides to post online. What is she trying to express about herself? What kinds of editing techniques does she use and why? What kind of feedback does she hope to get? How will she feel if people misunderstand what she is trying to communicate?
Filter feedback. Teens long for peer feedback — as long as it is positive. Negative comments can be crushing, so parents need to help children develop defenses. Rather than accepting hostile or cruel comments as objectively “true,” teach kids to understand them as a reflection of the other person’s state of mind. People who are happy with themselves don’t feel the need to attack others. Encourage your child to be constructive in her own comments — supporting and encouraging other girls instead of tearing them down.
Get real. Positive role models have an enormous effect on kids. Surround her with female role models — grandmas and aunts, teachers and coaches, your own colleagues and friends. Talk about the accomplishments of these women and the qualities you admire in them.
Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. Visit growing-up-online.com to read more of her columns.