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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Bodies Are Canceled. Thanks, Instagram

A trove of leaked documents and a recent congressional hearing have proven the obvious: Instagram harms many of its users, and its parent company Facebook has known for years. As one company slide concluded: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” The recent developments confirm years of independent research showing that, for many, the app is linked to lowered body satisfaction and an increase in dieting—and that the changes happen fast. In one study of undergraduate women, it took just seven minutes on Instagram to ruin the mood.

There are a million recommendations on how to mitigate the damage of the unrelenting barrage of idealized images of strangers and friends. These commonsense strategies include curating your Instagram feed and practicing gratitude for your body by writing down the things it can do, regardless of how it looks. Some people try to use the good (body-positive images showing diverse shapes, sizes, and colors) to drive out the bad (images of idealized bodies). When all else fails, there are apps to help you reduce the time you spend on other apps.

But none of these tactics get to the root of the problem, which the stock phrase “body-image issues” barely even begins to describe. How we look—at ourselves and others—and its often-negative consequences remain more a matter of hair-trigger emotions than of rational thought. Once you’ve learned to see your body as an object, “you can’t turn that off,” says Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and the founder of its Body & Media Lab. “You can only walk away.”

The best tactic, then, is a little more extreme than anything formally proposed before: Stop creating and consuming images of bodies. Cancel corporeality. Find ways to perceive, and be perceived, less.

Here’s an abridged history of self-perception: For millennia, the best shot you had at seeing yourself was in a naturally reflective surface, like a pool of water. (RIP Narcissus.) Roughly 500 years ago, glass mirrors became increasingly commonplace. Less than 200 years ago, people took the first images with photographic cameras. And, in 2010, Kevin Systrom posted the first photo on Instagram.


While mirrors radically altered people’s relationship to their own appearance, any glance was fairly fleeting. Photography, by contrast, entailed a kind of violent transfer of ownership. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 essay collection On Photography. “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”

In an era where people take an estimated 1.4 trillion photos a year, at least 82 percent of young Americans have taken and posted a selfie online, and any image can be edited and shared on one of dozens of platforms in mere minutes, to be liked, commented upon, or, worse, ignored, the question of who holds that power has become even more complicated.

For more than two decades, Engeln and her colleagues have shown that popular media of all types—tabloids, television, and now social platforms—contribute to the widespread problem of objectification. It happens when people (especially those perceived to be female) are seen less as agents and equals and more as objects meant to be aesthetically evaluated. But the harm doesn’t stop there. Over time, researchers have theorized, these ideas become internalized, and people’s self-worth becomes tied to their outward appearance. This can lead to shame, anxiety, depression, and disordered eating.

It also results in more and more time spent self-surveilling. In experimental studies, seemingly trivial things—like being in the presence of mirrors or scales or receiving an appearance-related comment—have been shown to lead to a decline in cognitive performance, as the brain’s limited attention is pulled away from the task at hand and toward the body and how it appears to others. The result, Engeln writes in her 2018 book Beauty Sick, is that many people walk around with an invisible mirror between them and the world.

Self-objectification has become so ingrained that the experience doesn’t get much better with the wisdom of age or an investment in media literacy, Engeln argues. Even real-time warnings—like labels disclaiming “this image was photoshopped”—can do more harm than good by encouraging people to scrutinize images of idealized bodies even more closely, sort of like the emerging research on trigger warnings. “You can’t simply grow out of it,” Engeln writes of beauty sickness. “You must break free with deliberate intent and perseverance.”

Yet, even when it hurts, the desire to look—and to be seen—remains strong. Hence the endless attempts to balance out airbrushed influencers with unedited images of average people living healthy, happy lives—yours, perhaps, included.

But focusing on any appearance-focused media, even body-positive posts, can still lead to self-objectification. In one 2019 study, published in the journal New Media & Society, Australian researchers found that, among 195 women age 18 to 30, seeing diverse bodies experienced a small boost in mood. By comparison, the mood of those who saw images of idealized bodies plummeted. Yet the study authors noted that people in both groups made more appearance-related statements immediately after.

At least one of these outcomes seem positive, but Instagram doesn’t work like a controlled psychology experiment. Even people who selectively follow pets, plants, and body-positive content will still find their feed pumped full of targeted advertisements and Explore page recommendations for weight loss ads, pro-anorexia content, and retouched celebrity images. “When you want more users, more time, more content—when that’s your goal—the mental health of your users cannot be your number-one priority, because those things are mutually exclusive,” Engeln says. The power, it’s clear, is in the hands of Facebook executives.

Loving your body all the time isn’t feasible for most people—and, if it keeps your attention focused on its component parts, may not even be preferable. That’s the foundation of a movement called body neutrality, which encourages people to appreciate what their body can do and care less about how it looks or feels. Why not push it one step further and aim to be a shiny ball of light—at least online? Facebook’s Big Tobacco moment seems to provide the perfect opportunity to stop posting photos of ourselves, and to stop looking at photos of other people, altogether.

Sans the permanent demise of social media or the sudden success of mind-uploading technology, the pandemic is probably the closest most people will come to feeling truly free from their appearance. “This year and counting of Zoom meetings, iMessage socializing, Crowdcast readings, and a Slack-based office has gotten me closer than I’ve ever been to my fond wish of one day being a brain in a jar,” editor and author Jess Zimmerman wrote in February.

That feeling of safety in isolation had real-world consequences. Some trans and nonbinary people, for example, were able to acknowledge the dysphoria they feel out in the world and to seek gender-affirming care. Time alone “has created this ability to really live each day from your soul, from your home both literally and figuratively, the home that’s inside of you,” one person told Elemental. “It really can create possibilities for people to align with what feels most authentic.”

For Engeln, the idea of opting out of the human image started with tabloids at the supermarket checkout stand. If you’re forced to linger in front of them, Engeln wrote in her book, turn the covers around. As the spaces where bodies could be shared and scrutinized grew, so did the implications of her call to action. Delete image-sharing apps. Compel brands to advertise products, not people. Turn off … most TV. “I suspect it’s too much to ask young people to walk away,” says Engeln, who admits to maintaining a carefully controlled Instagram herself, “but I dream of a backlash.”

This suggestion is not without controversy. In appearing to reduce people to a set of learned assumptions, and anticipating their behaviors as a result, self-objectification theory, and any advice that stems from it, can sound a lot like denying someone’s agency—one of the very things it aims to critique. At the same time, the call to erase all bodies from the internet runs counter to decades of work to make space for people of color, people with disabilities, trans and nonbinary people, and others in marginalized bodies who have historically been pushed out of frame.

In reality, the historically unprecedented access people have to unedited, and often celebratory, images of all kinds of people probably can do a lot of good. That 2019 study, on how women responded to viewing different types of body content, led researchers to wonder if self-objectification was exclusively a bad thing. While all the research participants made more appearance-based statements after viewing images of other people’s bodies, women in the body-positive group at least sounded upbeat. Compared to the women who saw idealized images, more (but not necessarily all) of their commentary was positive, the authors reported. That included sentiments like, “I am beautiful.”

But democratizing the selfie alone won’t free us—and we must remain cognizant of the cost of accessing them, too. So long as Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat run on an economy of insecurity, everything else—the subversive art and boundary-pushing fashion, not to mention the political imagery and mundane images of everyday life—will continue to exist alongside commercialized bodies and commodified anxieties.

As pandemic restrictions ease, maintaining its brain-in-a-jar energy will no doubt be a challenge. But giving up on the idea that the "right" Instagram accounts will save us—and focusing on the forgotten (and unphotogenic) pleasures of living in a body that’s active, unencumbered, and free—could be the first step toward body invisibility.

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