This September, the Wall Street Journal broke research leaked from Facebook, which detailed Instagram to be what the paper called a “toxic” environment for teens, especially teen girls. It showed the company knew its negative impact on teens’ body image and yet still continued to promote harmful content to vulnerable users.
Facebook (now Meta) has said that the Journal published a “mischaracterization” of the leaked research, and their data shows Instagram actually makes teens feel better, not worse. Facebook has released annotated versions of the slides the whistle-blower made public, explaining the variety, limits, and purpose of the research. Along with vowing to be more vigilant, they have initiated new features on the app they claim can mitigate self-harm. But despite these gestures, many feel it is too little, too late. A recent CNN poll suggests that 76% of Americans believe that social media is making society worse, and trending advice suggests limiting social media use or stopping it altogether.
The staff of United States Senator Richard Blumenthal’s demonstrated the potential for toxicity by creating an Instagram account for a fictional 13-year-old expressing interest in losing weight. The girl was reportedly “flooded” with self-harm and extreme dieting content within a matter of hours.
What has barely been mentioned is that there is already an antidote to this toxicity, and it’s been in our hands the whole time.
Since the very beginning of social media, the body positivity movement has been an active presence calling for acceptance and unbiased treatment. Often overlooked by the media, this campaign has its roots in the 1960s when the Fat Acceptance movement addressed weight bias in society, and decried diet culture — issues still at the forefront of the culture 60 years later. “Body positivity” and “self-love” have become rallying cries on social media, creating community around discrimination against bodies that don’t conform to an idealized standard. Often conflated, there is a subtle difference between these two very popular campaigns: The body positivity movement began as a social justice cause, while “self-love” is a personal practice of acceptance and gratitude directed towards the self.
Body positive and self-love influencers now often have followers in the tens of thousands and use their platforms to engage on all manner of topics, not solely body-image related. Today, Instagram posts associated with the movements include topics such as body size, skin, disability, illness (such as cancer), hair color and aging, gender identity, post-pregnancy changes, body hair, and sexuality. Going far beyond what many see as a body-image movement, body positivity and self-love represent many things we once thought shameful. The picture-perfect world that Instagram and other social media is famous for is turned on its head in this community where connection and healing are more important than projecting images of success or perfection.
The road to self-love is difficult, as many of these influencers demonstrate on their accounts, relating their own struggles with their body image. Many posts discuss difficult topics such as mental health, disordered eating, self-loathing, and trauma. Through this practice, they show their community that our social media landscape is filled with mirages — that there is much more happening behind the glossy, perfect-seeming images we encounter daily. While these posts expose the vulnerable side of their journey, influencers also share celebrations of self-love and affirmation, encouraging their followers to engage positively.
Honest interaction with community is what is powerful and crucial about body positivity’s presence on social media, and it is what allows the movement to grow beyond the online world. Campaigns like I Weigh, begun by actress Jameela Jamil, have grown to occupy spaces beyond social media. Influencers who found their community have gone on to create diversity-focused modeling agencies, podcasts, newsletters, and clubs.
However, in their response to the recent outcry, Instagram’s changes did not specifically include promoting the existing body positivity movement. Now, when users search for certain flagged terms, such as “thinspiration,” a pop-up gives two options: “get resources” or “see results”. The former presents you with three choices: “Talk to a friend”; “Talk with a helpline volunteer”; and “Find ways to support yourself”. It is only at the very bottom of the third option where positive body image accounts are even mentioned.
The body positivity movement is an asset that Instagram seems reticent to put forward as the resource it is. Not only downplayed, this movement has often been inhibited by the very same platform that claims to value “people and communities that might otherwise be overlooked or marginalized.”
Salty, a popular feminist newsletter, tracks how marginalized groups are discriminated against on Instagram. Salty’s 2021 survey found that trans, nonbinary, BIPOC and disabled users experience a higher rate of censorship on the platform compared to privileged users. They accounted for this, stating:
Our digital world has been created for and by cis, straight, White men … they embed all their prejudices, biases, and assumptions into the programs …. These algorithms do little more than continue a violent history of erasing, deleting, and excluding our legacy, our voices, and our work.
Along with the demographics highlighted by Salty, Instagram is well known to target fat and plus-sized people. Last year an image of model Nyome Nicholas-Williams was removed by the platform, prompting an outcry about censorship of larger bodies, especially BIPOC larger bodies. Instagram’s failure to protect teenagers is not just about diet culture or body-image, it exposes the larger issue of representation within patriarchal systems.
The body positivity movement and the self-love philosophy are assets both online and offline, which should be extolled more often and held up as the example of virtual connectivity that actually improves our lives. The antidote to Instagram’s toxicity is already literally in our hands.