Expectations on the female body go back to corsets and dangerous diets

Dr Harry Dyer, from the University of East Anglia. Photo: Harry Dyer

Dr Harry Dyer, from the University of East Anglia. Photo: Harry Dyer - Credit: Harry Dyer

Social media is often blamed for affecting the body images of young people - especially women - but the University of East Anglia's Dr Harry Dyer says society has long placed expectations on the female body.

The 2017 youth select committee report was released this month, noting a rise in social media use by young people over the last decade, and also a rise in body dissatisfaction. Whilst both certainly seem to be true, how much can we say that one is causing the other?

Research linking body image issues and social media use is currently far from settled. Indeed, there's little actual evidence that the amount of time spent on social media affects the mental health of young people. This is in part because it's increasingly difficult to separate social media use from the rest of a young person's life. We cannot isolate social media use as the sole cause of mental distress, when aspects such as increased exam-based pressure and a brutal job market may all play a part in shaping the current mental health of young people in the UK.

It is also abundantly clear that body image problems did not start with the advent of social media. They are ingrained in a society that has long placed expectations on the female body, often attempting to control the female body not through filters and duck lips, but through painful corsets and dangerous diets. Body image problems stem from much broader narratives. That they have now manifested themselves online is no great surprise.

In my own research, I have found that young women are actually increasingly critical of media messages. They know the tricks Kim Kardashian uses to alter her images, and are using them on their own selfies. They are not passive receivers of media messages, but are savvy and critical consumers, aware of photoshopping, pouting, contouring, and flattering angles.

I would suggest that, at all times, the focus needs to be broader than social media alone; the buck cannot stop with Instagram and Snapchat. Undoubtedly there is a need to hold social media designers accountable for the current online experiences of females, who are disproportionately harassed and abused on sites that do not take enough responsibility or action to protect users. However, body image issues have a much broader history, and we need to continue to look at the ways they are ingrained in our society. Being critical of social media is a welcome and vital start, but we cannot simply aim to cure a symptom without tackling the disease.