Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus have spoken about how being constantly bombarded with photos and comments about their appearance negatively affected their mental health, and celebs aren’t the only ones susceptible to social media sabotage. Whether it’s searching for #hairinspo or the perfect #ootd to emulate, social media has become a go-to source for certain types of inspiration—but according to a new study, certain hashtags can actually cause serious harm.
Researchers based in the U.K. did a deep dive into viral trends relating to body image, such as “fitspiration,” and found that in many cases, the images that go along with the hashtag idealize a super thin bod. Consider the classic “before and after” picture that is posted as #fitspiration. For me, the ‘after’ image that immediately springs to my mind is one of rock hard abs with a slim and trim figure—and according to researchers, that’s an accurate description of nearly a third of the photos in their study. Furthermore, over 80 percent of the fitspiration posts they analyzed on Instagram, Twitter and We Heart It depicted thin bodies.
Kyla Fox, a Toronto-based clinical therapist and eating disorder specialist, says that these types of “inspo” pics give the impression that a positive physical transformations mean slimming down, which is defs not the case for everyone.
“If the ‘after’ is what we aspire to, what about all the people that look like the ‘before’? How do they feel?” she says.
In addition to fitspiration, the study, which was published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, also looked at the hashtags “thinspiration” and “bonespiration”—which clearly have more negative connotations. Fox notes that these hashtags are not just problematic because they idealize images of extremely thin individuals or those with protruding bones, but also because they perpetuate a stereotype about what it looks like to have an eating disorder. Having personally dealt with anorexia and an over-exercise addiction, and now working with patients in Toronto, Fox says that most people who have eating disorders don’t actually appear physically different. These individuals “stay the same through their suffering, but it doesn’t mean that they’re suffering any less,” she says.
Whether it’s fitspiration, thinspiration or bonespiration, Fox says that we need to start thinking what we hashtag and why.
“They have a lot of implicit messages, regardless of eating disorders, about our standards of beauty, our standards of acceptance, expectations about how we should look and therefore how we should feel about ourselves, those are all potentially really dangerous,” she says.
While these hashtags can be harmful, Fox says that getting rid of them is not the answer—or actually possible. “These images will always be there and their ability to affect us is really based on how we feel about ourselves, so that’s where the work has to be,” she says, explaining that users have the control to follow people that make them feel good about themselves, rather than aspiring for something that is not healthy. She points to the body positive movement as a social media trend that is helping rather than hurting.
“It’s not necessarily about thinspiration or fitspiration, it’s more about “you” inspiration—honouring people for who they are and where they’re at and what exactly they look like as opposed to promoting acceptance and power around changing who you are,” she says.
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