The Great Debate: Is social media bad for the body-positivity movement?

Wellness writer Danae Mercer and Re:Set founder Aakanksha Tangri have a discussion over the issue

One of Danae Mercer's Instagram posts. 
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Danae Mercer: I think social media is potentially a very powerful, positive thing.

Aakanksha Tangri: Social media is a double-edged sword and often features people's "highlights reels". Similarly, while social media has helped the body-positivity movement, I think it needs to be more inclusive of people of determination and people of colour.

DM: Can you explain what you mean when you say social media is a double-edged sword?

AT: If things are going right in my life, I'd love to show how everything is working out for me. When things aren't going right, seeing people's happy moments can be triggering. Very few people can learn to draw a fine balance of not getting sucked into the comparison game.

DM: Absolutely agree. I think my advice there is to be really conscious about what we consume. There are some really cool studies looking at what happens when people look at body positive accounts, or traditional 'fitspo' accounts, and how it impacts their views of themselves. And basically, looking at more body positive accounts (like @weeshasworld, pictured below) has been shown to help people view themselves more compassionately.

AT: While I agree that social media can influence body positivity, the current discourse predominantly features neurotypical women who generally tend to be tall, with straight hair and Caucasian. As a woman of colour, I've had discussions with many of my friends where we feel we aren't represented in the discourse. Similarly, people of determination and even men have spoken up about being excluded from the movement on the whole. Even if you look at ads on TV, you will find a certain "type" of woman being featured in the body positivity movement.

When things aren't going right, seeing people's happy moments can be triggering. Very few people can learn to draw a fine balance of not getting sucked into the comparison game.

DM: I think this is where social media has been really powerful. For the first time we have all sorts of different people celebrating what makes them unique – and they don't need to go through the filter of a large media corporation or advertising company. I follow one young girl who has a bionic arm and is making a presence for herself online through it, and a Saudi athlete who lost a leg and is using social media to share his journey. I understand these aren't what we overwhelmingly see, but I think we are seeing them
more than we ever
have before, and that's powerful.

AT: That's amazing! We have to remember, however, that for many women of colour and people of determination, there are certain cultural and social barriers, including socio-economic status. Many influencers on social media come from a place of slight privilege, which allows them to speak out and their voices are needed, but we have to think of those who aren't able to speak out or have access to all sorts of media.

DM: I think that's a huge issue, but one that isn't necessarily specific to social media and more linked to how we empower individuals to have voices in general. I do think social media has helped broaden conversations around bodies, health, mental health, female issues, and all sorts of things. I'm biased, but I'm a fan of it for these things. What do you think could be done differently on social media to make others feel more empowered and represented in the body positive movement?

AT: I think if brands, especially beauty and clothing related, are working with influencers, they need to reach out to more diverse influencers, regardless of skin colour, ability, body size, age. I'd also love it if people with large followings were more open about when things go wrong for them – which, of course, I realise is asking a lot for someone to be vulnerable to thousands of strangers. In general, I'd say be more real and vocal. If, as an influencer, you have the chance to include/feature someone on your profile, look beyond your social circle and see who you could reach out to. It's the new-age version of asking the lonely kid to join your lunch table.

DM: I want to pull in a sort of horrifying bit of research from Dr Saliha Afridi, who is managing director of LightHouse Arabia. She hates social media – I think mostly because of clients and kids she's seeing. She shared this research the other day in which scientists looked at all these kids from around the world, the kids who are now growing up with social media constantly, and asked them what they're afraid of. And these kids, Dr Afridi explained, said primarily one thing: they're afraid of being fat. This is horrifying on so many levels, but a huge part of this is because of social media. For me, one of the things that caused me to start sharing a bit more 'real' stuff was just that I knew how much seeing a variety of bodies, and stretchmarks, and cellulite, changed how I saw my own body.

AT: I still struggle with body image issues especially after I workout and then eat something I shouldn't have. Seeing women with the perfect chiseled body on social media and then seeing them eat a full pizza always makes me wonder why I can't have healthy eating habits and still achieve the "perfect body" that I think I'd want. Also, for someone who struggles with cystic acne on a daily basis, seeing people with glowing skin tends to make me look at myself in the mirror and wonder why I can't have that. I know better than to do this to myself and fall in the comparison trap, but yet I always do!

I felt so uncomfortable about my legs for ages – but, for me, social media has changed that, which I guess is why I'm such a huge advocate of it. I just think we really need to be very careful about what we consume, and curate our feeds.

DM: I think as humans, we naturally compare. It's how we figure out where we are in society and our worth and a thousand other things. Especially as women, because we are taught to do that and to base it on beauty from when we are young. I felt so uncomfortable about my legs for ages – but, for me, social media has changed that, which I guess is why I'm such a huge advocate of it. I just think we really need to be very careful about what we consume, and curate our feeds.

AT: I'm so glad you've seen positive change. Yet, another large part of the not-so-good aspect of social media is constantly seeking validation for self-worth whether that's through likes or comments and I'm glad platforms like Instagram are taking the step to hide likes, as young people have often reported they tend to question their own self-worth when a photo they post doesn't get as many likes as they thought it would.

DM: Another horrifying bit of new knowledge from Dr Afridi is that we're seeing a change in eating disorders. So, traditionally eating disorders have been linked a lot to control, to emotional things happening in an external environment. But now, because of social media, they're seeing little girls and boys with eating disorders that are just about the body. Because these kids are in this constant feedback loop.

AT: A report from the British National Health Service last year showed that girls who said they compared themselves to others on social media were more likely to have a mental health condition than those who didn't – and this is likely to be related, at least in part, to body image.

DM: So it's about how we open up that dialogue to them. Saying 'kids shouldn't be on social' seems like a moot point, because they will be on social. So how can we make it a safer space?

AT: I think what needs to happen from a young age is more conversations about body image, bullying and peer pressure, among others. That could include workshops in schools, where both parents and children are involved, honest dialogues at home and raising awareness through mainstream media and brands.

DM: Also, if organisations were to start talking to some of the larger influencers about creating a dialogue, and creating campaigns around it, I think the conversation could grow. I think we're going to have to wrap this up, but I just wanted to end by flagging a few accounts locally and globally that I think are really positive and doing some great stuff. Folks like: @WeeshasWorld @Ameniesseibi @bodypositivepanda @thebirdspapaya @manirostom.

AT: To add to your list, I'd like to mention @sokneeoh, @masabagupta and @the_indian_feminist, who are very vocal about body positivity and the challenges women of colour face.