PULLMAN, Wash. — Fitness influencers on social media love to show off their sculpted bodies along with supposedly inspirational messages, mottos, and hashtags for their followers. Unfortunately, studies show that these posts often lead to self-loathing and body image issues among others who view them far more than they serve to motivate. Now, however, Washington State University researchers find that adding just a few words of body appreciation to these posts can help wipe out the negative influence of viewing objectified images of female fitness influencers.
While young women, in particular, can be especially sensitive to body image issues after spending too much time online, this research suggests that if influencers add something as simple as a caption with a body appreciation message, like “Love your body. See what it can do,” it can go a long way toward mitigating any negative mental health effects.
These types of messages were shown to boost viewers’ self-compassion and appreciation of their own bodies, at least on a short-term basis.
“These captions could serve as a protective factor,” says Jessica Willoughby, the study’s senior author and associate professor in WSU’s Murrow College of Communication, in a university release. “This is something that’s really small, just a couple of comments, that influencers could be putting on their posts.”
The study also suggests other possible interventions. For example, health communicators could work to ensure that young women who regularly view this type of online content also see other posts reminding them to view their bodies in a positive light.
To conduct this research, Prof. Willoughby and first author WSU Ph.D. candidate Leticia Couto recruited 200 college-aged women and asked them to view various sets of manipulated Instagram posts from real fitness influencers boasting millions of followers. Each group viewed a specific set of posts featuring objectified and regular images with or without body appreciation messages.
Objectified images featured scantily clad influencers posing with a focus on specific body parts. Some of these images even had the face cut out of the frame entirely. Earlier research, also led by Prof. Willoughby, noted the majority of top fitness influencers’ posts contain sexually objectified images.
The “unobjectified” images, meanwhile, could still include influencers posing in tight sportswear, but the frame would always contain the entire person and focus on something besides just their body — an influencer demonstrating how to properly perform an exercise, for instance.
After looking at the posts, participants had to rank their agreement with a series of statements related to self-esteem, self-compassion, and opinions toward their own bodies – both at that moment and across a more steady, long-term perception of their bodies (trait body appreciation).
The ensuing results show that the body appreciation messaging indeed had a positive impact on participants’ self-compassion and their views toward their own bodies in the short term. This held true even if the messages were paired with objectified images. No connection was seen regarding better self-esteem or the longer-term perception of their bodies.
Study authors say they didn’t expect just a few positive statements to hold a long-term impact on body perceptions. Still, Prof. Willoughby says these findings are quite encouraging, especially considering self-compassion can be more protective than self-esteem.
“If you are in a difficult situation, self-esteem sometimes goes away, but self-compassion typically stays because it’s a way of talking to yourself when you need it,” the study author comments. “Knowing these messages have an impact on self-compassion is really powerful because it’s something that can impact you even when you’re not having a good day.”
Since this project focused on short-term effects, future efforts should study the cumulative effects of such statements. Researchers stress the importance of this topic; countless young women scroll through dozens of these images on a weekly and even daily basis.
Study authors suggest fitness influencers consider adding such body appreciation messages to their posts. However, a better solution would be posting fewer over-idealized, sexually objectified images. Prof. Willoughby admits the latter is unlikely to happen, despite her earlier research noting influencers’ sexually objectified poses usually result in fewer “likes.”
So, the onus seems to fall on Instagram users to change how they perceive and interact with these accounts.
“Pay attention to how these posts make you feel,” Prof. Willoughby concludes. “Is it actually inspiring you? Or is this something maybe you need to take a break from?”
The study is published in the journal Health Communication.
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