Selfies, Again

[Content Note: Invisibility; reference to disordered eating.]

From the BBC: 'Selfie' body image warning issued.
Spending lots of time on Facebook looking at pictures of friends could make women insecure about their body image, research suggests.

The more women are exposed to "selfies" and other photos on social media, the more they compare themselves negatively, according to a study.

Friends' photos may be more influential than celebrity shots as they are of known contacts, say UK and US experts.

The study is the first to link time on social media to poor body image. The mass media are known to influence how people feel about their appearance. But little is known about how social media impact on self-image.

Young women are particularly high users of social networking sites and post more photographs of themselves on the internet than do men.

To look at the impact on body image, researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Ohio University and University of Iowa surveyed 881 female college students in the US.

The women answered questions about their Facebook use, eating and exercise regimes, and body image.

The research, presented at a conference in Seattle, found no link with eating disorders. But it did find a link between time spent on social networks and negative comparisons about body image.

The more time women spent on Facebook, the more they compared their bodies with those of their friends, and the more they felt negative about their appearance.

"Spending more time on Facebook is not connected to developing a bad relationship with food, but there is a connection to poor body image," Petya Eckler, of the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, told the BBC.

She added: "The attention to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on social media than on traditional media because participants in social media are people we know. These comparisons are much more relevant and hit closer to home. Yet they may be just as unrealistic as the images we see on traditional media."
Okay, so a couple of things jump out at me:

1. 881 female college students does not axiomatically translate to "women," especially when age makes a significant difference in how lots of women view themselves. Often, extrapolating from a small data set works; this is not one of those cases.

2. I am curious about the seeming discordance of asserting that friends' photos function in the same way as celebrity photos in terms of broadcasting unrealistic images, yet simultaneously asserting that the comparisons with "people we know...are much more relevant and hit closer to home." If you know what someone looks like in person, unlike a celebrity, then you know how realistic or unrealistic a posted picture is.

3. That suggests something else may be at work. And what is that thing? Well, the study wasn't designed to answer that question, but I have a pretty good guess: The culture of judgment that persistently admonishes women to judge other women's appearances, choices, and lives and value our own success by measuring ourselves in increments born of competition with other women. Which isn't really about selfies and social media, or not exclusively, but about patriarchal dictates that cast women as competitors for limited successes in unwinnable games.

4. I have no idea how many of the 881 female college students surveyed for the study are part of marginalized communities whose markers are considered inherently incompatible with kyriarchal beauty standards. But whether someone's body image is lowered because they perceive themselves to have failed to perfectly approximate a beauty standard they believe other women have achieved, or whether someone's body image is lowered because their bodies are culturally deemed less than, by virtue of being fat, or having a physical disability, or having racial features culturally disfavored, or any one of a number of other "deviant" traits, is a meaningful difference. And thus present different challenges to countering the source(s) of the lower body image.

5. Reducing this to "posting selfies is bad!" is problematic in the same way that a lot of anti-selfies stuff is bad: That comparing oneself to posted selfies might be harmful for some young women does not mean that there are no women for whom posting selfies, and looking at selfies posted by other women, is not empowering. For lots of women who deviate significantly from kyriarchal beauty standards, selfies are profoundly affirming and have become a crucial tool in amplifying visibility.

Selfies aren't the problem. The problem is a patriarchal culture of judgment that is garbage for most women. And the ongoing conversation about how young women are damaging each other with their compulsive narcissism is a reprehensible red herring designed to deflect cultural responsibility for the harm done to them by a centuries-old cultural system of oppression—and instead task them with the blame.

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