Looking at These Instagram Photos Boosts Your Self-Esteem, Says Science

A new study sheds light on the cognitive effects of doctored images.

One of the many ways in which social media stresses us out is that it causes us to compare ourselves to others. You're sitting in a fluorescent office and looking at photos of an influencer getting paid thousands of dollars to frolic on a beach and you can't help but think, "What am I doing with my life? Why isn't that me?"

Given the premium that our society still places on a woman's looks, the negative impact that all of those photos of women with tiny waists and enormous booties has been well-documented.

But there's now an interesting caveat to the claim that social media harms female self-esteem and gives women unrealistic expectations about their bodies.

When Instagram first became popular, people assumed that all of the images posted were either unedited or lightly filtered, which inevitably made women feel badly about their own appearances. Studies have shown that the onslaught of photos of skinny models seductively posing by coconut trees gave women what psychologists call "thin ideal internalization," and often resulted in eating disorders.

But a new study published in the journal Body Image suggests that today's women are much more aware of the fact that many of these photos are heavily manipulated and/or edited, which means they're much less likely to negatively impact their mental health.

Researchers asked 360 female college students to evaluate 45 selfies from public Instagram accounts that consisted of conventionally attractive women in sexually appealing shots. Half of them were told that the women in these shots were peers, and the other half was told they were professional models. Half were also told that only a few of the photos were edited, whereas the other half saw nearly all of the photos marked as edited.

They were then asked to complete a questionnaire meant to assess their levels of thin ideal internalization, based on how much they agreed with statements such as "Thin women are more attractive than other women."

The results found that the women who believed the photos to have been modified were much less likely to suffer from thin ideal internalization. Furthermore, even the ones who hadn't seen photos that were explicitly marked as edited still often believed they had been Photoshopped.

"Women see the edited photos as less authentic and it reduces the negative effect these images can have on them," Megan Vendemia, lead author of the study and doctoral candidate in communication at The Ohio State University, said in a university newsletter. "Just being aware of the amount of photo editing that goes on diminishes women's endorsement of the thin ideal when they view pictures of slender people."

Back in 2015, Instagram star Essena O'Neill went viral after she quit social media and posted videos in which she said "social media is not real life," and edited all of her money-making photos to explain how much misery and labor went into those seemingly effortless glamour shots.

Since then, there's been somewhat of a movement to remind women that the idealized female bodies that people see on Instagram are simply the result of strategic angling and lighting (for more on this, see This Woman's Side-by-Side Photo Reveal Why "Insta Booty" Shots Are Fake).

The good news is that the study suggests this push to make women realize that what they see on social media does not reflect real life has actually been effective.

The bad news is that women are still judging other women based on their appearances and how they present themselves in photos, given that that the study found women were very disapproving of women who edited their own photos, and that they were more harsh on their peers than professional models.

"Participants tended to be more forgiving of professional models than their own peers on social media sites for the exact same behavior," Vendemia said. "They thought models were sharing selfies for more altruistic reasons, such as to motivate others or promote health."

It may be a while before we let others live and let live, but at least this is a step in the right direction. And for more body positivity, check out This Popular Instagrammer's Inspiring Words about Weight Gain.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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