If you spend any time on Instagram, you’ve seen it. It’s that certain genre of image posted by models, celebrities, and other “influencers” that’s so carefully (and often awkwardly) posed, so obviously Photoshopped, that the women in the pictures appear more absurd than beautiful. These images feature inhumanly perfected skin – no wrinkles, no blemishes, and no signs of having ever been exposed to the elements. They also tend to feature a degree of thinness that few women ever experience: not a stomach roll or ounce of cellulite in sight. If you’re struggling with body image , these posts can make you cry in frustration. But new research on parodies of these types of posts suggests we should do the opposite: laugh.
Scientists out of the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England and the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University in Australia recently published a study investigating whether viewing parodies of thin-ideal promoting Instagram posts might reverse some of the negative outcomes associated with seeing all those perfected photos of celebrities. The researchers were inspired by the work of Celeste Barber (@celesterbarber), an Australian comedian. A few years ago, Barber began creating and posting parodies of typical celebrity Instagram posts. The parodies all involve Barber recreating the original image with some “real life” twists. She allows her love handles and stomach rolls to breathe free and mocks the awkward facial expressions and poses that have become commonplace in these types of posts. Her captions draw attention to the odd choices involved in staging these photo shoots. Do real peopleamong a pile of empty cardboard boxes? Or do handstands in bed over their loved ones? It’s clear that Barber’s parodies have hit home for lots of Instagram fans – she currently has well over 5 million followers.
To test the effects of Barber’s parody images, the researchers assigned just over 100 women (all regular Instagram users between the ages of 18 and 30 years old) to view one of two sets of images. In the “parody condition,” subjects viewed 16 of Barber’s images for 15 seconds each. Each of the images featured a side-by-side view of the original celebrity image and Barber’s humorous recreation of that image. In the “thin ideal condition,” subjects saw only the original celebrity images, all of which showed a woman in tight-fitting/revealing clothing. For both sets of images, the researchers included the original hashtags, likes, and captions. To make sure that research subjects were paying attention to the images, researchers asked them to rate each post in terms of how typical it was of what they see on Instagram. Before viewing the images, all subjects completed measures of mood and body image, which they repeated afterward.
Can Laughter Improve Body Image?
In line with the researchers’ predictions, the body satisfaction of women who saw the parody images increased from pre-test to post-test. In other words, just a few minutes of viewing Barber’s parodies left the subjects feeling significantly better about how they looked. On the other hand, women who viewed the set of original celebrity images showed decreases in happiness . This pattern is consistent with a large body of research findings suggesting that viewing thin-ideal media has a negative impact on women’s mood.
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While Barber’s parody images didn’t increase women’s happiness, they allowed the women’s mood to remain stable. This is notable given that the parody images still contained the original celebrity image next to the corresponding parody. In other words, while parody images might not reverse the typical effects of exposure to thin ideal media on mood, they could at least stifle some of those negative outcomes.
Though the effects in this study were relatively small (and potentially short-lived), they’re still important. A number of studies suggest that young women with Instagram accounts spend, on average, between 30-60 minutes per day looking at their feeds. That’s a lot of time for the effects of celebrity thin-ideal posts to accumulate. Anything that can combat those negative effects is worth considering.
Raising Body Confident Kids
Overall, this study suggests a fun and relatively easy intervention to take some of the psychological sting out of social media. Because it would likely be impossible to convince most young women to quit Instagram altogether, and because so many young women follow celebrities who post images glorifying an unrealistic body standard, sprinkling some parodies throughout their feeds could be a small step toward breaking the tyranny of the over-produced Instagram beauty ideal. If you can’t escape the absurdity of the faux-perfect land of Instagram, at least get a good chuckle out of it. Your mental health might be all the better for it.
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