As much as it can serve as a breeding ground for insecurity, Instagram has as of late become an unlikely champion of body positivity and wellness goals. This year in particular has seen a real spike in people posting about working toward their best bodies, using popular hashtags like #progressnotperfection, #TransformationTuesday, #MotivationMonday, and more.
And while a lot of people might find these “Before and After” photos obnoxious, a new study called “Weight Loss Through Virtual Support Communities: A Role for Identity-based Motivation in Public Commitment,” co-authored by the Dr. Sonya A. Grier, professor of marketing in the American University Kogod School of Business, and published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing, claims that these proclamations have shown to actually be effective in helping people maintain their wellness goals.
In the study, researchers observed the progress of two weight-loss communities over a four-year period, and found that those who had shared their goals and updates with their “virtual support communities” (VSCs) had had greater success in achieving their fitness and weight-loss goals than those who had not.
“Research finds that individuals are more likely to achieve success with such goals when they make a public commitment to achieving them,” the researchers wrote. “Through our netnographic inquiry, we extend prior theorizing of VSC with an explanation of how public commitment manifests in VSC in support of goal attainment. More specifically, we find these online communities make salient a context relevant social identity which motivates behaviors that facilitate compliance to the public commitment, and hence, more effective goal pursuit. In addition, we create a typology of member roles within these VSC that further influence public commitment.”
Simply put, posting your fitness and weight-loss goals on social media inspires you to actually commit to their aspirations, driven as you are by the shame of letting everyone know you failed. Similarly, getting encouragement and support from your followers when you put up a photo showing your progress motivates you to continue your journey.
For the sake of being thorough, it’s important to emphasize that this research only applies to the type of #beforeandafter photos shown above, not, say, #gymselfie or #fitinspo, which can have a darker undercurrent. In 2016, body image researchers at Australia’s Flinders University found that, in an analysis of 600 random Instagram photos of women tagged with #fitspiration, 31% showed a body without a face or head. This trend can very easily translate into self-objectification, and from there it’s a slippery slope to eating disorders and other mental issues.
And research has also shown that following some of these fitness influences on Instagram, many of whom seem to have the kinds of bodies most of us can only dream of (no matter how much cabbage we eat or yoga we do), can negatively affect body image and lead to low self-esteem.
So it seems like the lesson is that, when it comes to social media, there’s a fine line between inspiring people and getting them down, and we should make every effort to stick to the former and avoid the latter!
For the sake of true body positivity, it’s also worth noting that these tags can be used for both weight loss and weight gain. Whatever inspires you to achieve your personal version of your best body!