Conducted by UNSW Sydney, the research labels the viewing of diverse bodies online as an effective "micro-intervention" to prevent or limit the adverse impacts of social media.
“We see this strategy as a micro-intervention — a small change we can make to improve people’s experiences on social media and how they feel about themselves in everyday life,” lead author of the study Dr Jasmine Fardouly says. “In the current study, just one post a day was potentially enough to induce positive effects. More exposure may be even more effective.”
The two-week study involved 159 young women, aged between 18 and 24. As part of the study, they either joined a 'body-positive' Facebook group, followed an 'appearance-neutral' Facebook group, or continued to use the site as normal.
After participants were exposed to small bouts of diverse body sizes, shapes, ethnicities and disabilities, researchers concluded that this 'micro-intervention' decreased reported body dissatisfaction and tendencies to compare appearances. These improvements in self-image were maintained for four weeks after initially viewing the content.
Body positivity first came to light after the fat acceptance movement in the 1960s. "The body positive movement was created by and for people in marginalised bodies, particularly fat, Black, queer and disabled bodies," Chelsea Kronengold, the manager of communications at the National Eating Disorders Association, previously told R29.
But since then, it has been through many iterations. From gaining popularity in the early 2010s through blogger culture, to brands co-opting the term, and straight-sized folk jumping on the bandwagon — trust and optimism in the body positivity movement have faltered.
"We need to be critical of the content presented under the guise of body positivity," Dr Fardouly says. "The quality does vary considerably, and we don’t yet know enough about the specific composition of the content that is needed to have positive effects — it’s something future research should continue to explore."
This research, though, does restore some faith in the power of inclusive content. The damaging nature of social media is not to be underestimated, and a cold turkey approach to it isn't viable in this day and age.
"Being unhappy with your body is a risk factor for many mental health disorders. It’s an important predictor of eating disorders and depression and is also linked to some anxiety disorders," Dr Fardouly says. "It’s very unrealistic to expect that adolescents will stop using social media altogether, so it’s not an effective long-term strategy. Social media isn’t going away. But as we’ve shown, it’s also not really the time you spend on it, it’s what you’re doing when you’re on it."
The onus isn't left on the individual, either. As seen in documentaries like The Social Dilemma, social media is built up by obsessive algorithms that feed off insecurity.
"Platforms could incorporate more diversity into their algorithms. They can choose to put more body-positive content into people’s feeds and promote it more prominently," Dr Fardouly offers.
Joining a few Facebook groups won't fix the insecurities and self-image issues that social media continues to exacerbate. But instead of waiting for Big Tech to step in, know that curating what you see online can help cultivate a healthier relationship with the Internet and yourself.