At some point after high school, the conversation about body image and self-esteem just seems to stop. We have sat through those classes that have preached society’s unrealistic standards for women and their bodies. We have learned about all the tricks of social media—the altered appearances, the marketing, the perfectly constructed realities. We are well aware that what we see online isn’t necessarily real. We get it. Now, as university students, we are empowered by the fact that there are all kinds of smart, strong, and successful women all of whom are beautifully different and diverse—and we are proud of the fact that we are one of them.
But sometimes as we scroll through Instagram, that pride seems to get a bit dimmer. The comparisons begin. The envy. The convincing voice that tells us that there is just something fundamentally wrong or unforgivably different about us. In just a moment, our self-perceptions are transformed from an encouraging “You Go Girl!” to a place that convinces us that we aren’t one of the lucky ones like “those girls”—and that it’s a problem. Just like that, no matter how confident we sometimes feel, we are faced with the reminder: self-love is just not that easy.
The tendency to compare our appearances to others is, in fact, no fault of our own. Social Comparison Theory, proposed by Leon Festinger1, explains that comparison is an innate process, where we evaluate our own abilities and characteristics based on the perceptions of others being “better” (upward comparison) or “worse” (downward comparison) than we are. While this theory was developed long before the creation of social media, it lends an interesting perspective to why self-esteem and body image may be impacted following exposure to appearance-focused images online. Further, researchers from Kent State University2 studied the frequency of daily upward or downward appearance-based comparisons made by a sample of women. The findings showed that women who had greater body dissatisfaction made more frequent upward comparisons to perceived “more attractive” others. However, regardless of body satisfaction level, making upwards comparisons were associated with increased feelings of guilt, negative affect, and negative body cognitions among the women. While social comparison is not necessarily a bad thing, as it has been associated with positive motivation towards self-improvement (e.g., skill-building), what do we do when the comparative nature of social media begins to negatively impact self-esteem and body image?
How can social media exposure be changed?
The truth is that we have a lot of control about what we are exposed to on social media. If social comparison is beginning to have negative impacts on your mental health and self-esteem, it may be a sign to take charge of your social media exposure. To help you decide what to keep, add, or filter out on your social media platforms, these are some questions to consider:
- What do I follow that makes me feel most critical?
- What do I follow that makes me feel most empowered?
- How do I want to feel while I am social media?
- Does what I follow align with my interests, values, or beliefs?
Self-love is a continuum of highs and lows. Some days it’s easy, and other days it feels impossible. No matter where you are on that spectrum, these are some strategies that can help you incorporate just a little more kindness into your day.
Keep track of your self-talk. It is likely that negative self-perceptions following social media exposure extend beyond online interactions and into day-to-day life. Self-talk, including both the inner and outer dialogues about ourselves, are powerful and have implications on our mood and self-esteem. It is a daunting task to completely eliminate critical thoughts about ourselves, but the more cognisant we are of our own negativity bias, the more effective we will be in addressing its associated impacts on self-esteem and body image. Popular interventions, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy3, are actually based on this premise, stating that thoughts have a direct correlation to emotions (how we feel about ourselves) and behaviours (how we treat ourselves).
Positive affirmations. Similar to self-talk, positive affirmations are the intentional act of stating comforting, confidence-boosting phrases or words to oneself. For example, in moments when you want to critique your appearance, stating something like “I accept and love myself for who I am” can be implemented instead. Just like any new habit, replacing judgement with affirmation is something that takes practice. However, through repetition, new neural connections are actually formed and strengthened in our brain4, making positive self-statements more readily accessible in times of hardship, insecurity, or self-doubt. Having a pre-existing list of examples of positive affirmations can make this process easier!
Commit to Self-Compassion. Stronger than self-esteem alone, is the concept of self-compassion. Self-esteem is fleeting—it’s an ever-changing evaluation of our personal worth and value. With self-compassion, we recognize our own humanity, non-judgmentally accept ourselves, and treat ourselves with kind regard5. Self-compassion acknowledges the things that individuals can’t change and makes that okay. It also helps us build resilience to the harmful impacts of social comparison, because despite our self-criticism, we are still deserving of compassion. Through this perspective, we learn to accept compliments, nourish our bodies, exercise, try something new, spend time with loved ones, or seek counselling—because these are all behaviours that demonstrate acts of love, care, and kindness.
Self-love is a lifelong process, and it is likely that social media and the social comparison that comes along with it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Despite the fluctuations in self-esteem throughout the lifespan, we are our own harshest critiques, but also our loudest motivators. It takes courage to begin making the small changes that boost self-esteem and encourage self-compassion. No matter where you are on your journey to a happier, more confident you, let me kick-start that process with a big—You go girl! You can do it!
- Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations,7(2), 117–40.
- Leahey, T. M., Crowther, J. H. & Mickelson, K. D. (2007). Frequency, nature, and effects of naturally occurring appearance-focused social comparisons. Behavior Therapy, 38, 132-143.
- Fenn, K., & Byrne, M. (2013). The key principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. InnovAiT, 6(9), 579–585.
- Hebb, D. (1949). The organisation of behavior. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.
- Neff, K.D. (2011). Self‐compassion, self‐esteem, and well‐being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5, 1-12.