By Lexie Kite, Ph.D.
I know a 12-year-old girl who is the embodiment of our famous Beauty Redefined mantra: My body is an instrument, not an ornament. She is kind, innocent, active, and largely free from the burden of living to be looked at that is placed upon women’s shoulders around the age of puberty. Today, that girl joined Instagram.
When I think about her scrolling through the explore page, I envision her being shoved from childhood into adulthood, sinking in a pool of dehumanizing lessons with every scroll:
You exist for others’ viewing pleasure. Your happiness and self-worth is directly connected to your ability to command increasing likes, follows, and DMs. Your beauty is defined by specific ideals set constantly out of reach and ever changing. You joy will come from documenting perfectly posed, styled, and edited images of your experiences – not the experiences themselves. Your looks are your most valuable asset. Your body will earn you love, popularity, and self-esteem.
These are messages girls and women are taught every day – through media, but also through the ways we talk to them, the toys they play with, the ways they hear us talk about other girls and women, the ways other girls and women receive validation and respect, the ways we define health that are dangerously conflated with beauty, the girls and women that receive attention from love interests, etc. But as a media and body image expert, I can unequivocally state that a young girl’s access to Instagram is like a master class in objectification. Taught by influencers and peers with more power than any teacher, parent or advocate, she will learn at the speed of light that she is her body, and that her body is her ticket to happiness, fulfillment, power, and love.
Research echoes what our own real-life experience as women with bodies and access to social media makes very clear: Social media use – especially Instagram – is associated with high anxiety, depression, negative body image, bullying, loneliness, and envy. And the more time spent on social media, the more likely she is to experience these negative outcomes. Parents, even if you spend lots of time on IG, you have no ideas what kids are really exposed to. They are savvier than you are, targeted with ideals and messages you aren’t, and you can rest assured you are hugely underestimating the harm that social media can do to your child.
Get this: when girls hit puberty, they are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. Much of this is connected to the fact that we live in an objectifying culture that teaches society that girls and women are most valuable for how well they decorate the world and they need to spend precious time and energy evaluating and controlling their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability. It’s called self-objectification and it’s sucks the life out of most girls and women. It is *very* likely your daughter already monitors her body by picturing what she looks like to other people more than you or she realizes. She thinks about what her thighs look like in her seat, she adjusts her clothing as she walks, she wonders if the person she’s talking to thinks she looks good. She sits out of PE when she doesn’t want to get sweaty or red for her next class.
Research shows us that when we live “to be looked at” in a perpetual state of self-objectification that overtakes most girls and women throughout their lives and is made exponentially worse by social media, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, we have lower sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left anxious and unhappy. It is so disheartening to think of how this holds girls and women back from a world that needs them.
If you are a parent or caretaker to a child, you undoubtedly face the burden of giving them access to social media. We are here to promise you that the burden of objectification that will be placed upon your daughter’s shoulders is much, much heavier than the burden you will carry by encouraging her to stay off Instagram. Even if everyone else is on.
The crushing weight of objectification heaped upon girls that scroll through Instagram is intense, and they learn to carry that weight as a natural part of womanhood. Most parents don’t quite understand the gravity of what girls encounter online. She will bear the weight of:
Every appetite suppressant and flat tummy tea and waist shaper sold by her favorite celebrity influencers (we’re looking at you, Kim Kardashian, and the millions of other influencers like you that prey on teen girls).
Every gym-going woman posting photos from the locker room, twisting herself unnaturally to highlight a tiny waist with a fashionably rounded backside to show her “fitness” progress or her sad-to-glad “before and after” transformations.
Every lifestyle and fashion blogger posting casual pics of themselves emphasizing their thinness and/or curves, products and procedures they’ve had done and are selling through sponsored posts, underwear and bikini pics that are supposed to represent elevated causes of body positivity, fitness, or empowerment, etc.
Every beauty influencer posting makeup tutorials for facial contouring to help women rid themselves of “flaws” like pores, lines, wrinkles, hairs, or other signs of life.
Every ad snuck in between photos her friends have posted, targeting her insecurities and selling her aspirations designed to look attainable but always out of reach.
And on and on and on.
Based on all of this overwhelming evidence against using Instagram, I’m going to talk to this 12-year-old girl and her wonderful parents. We’ll chat about why it might be best for her to hold off on scrolling for a while. The right age to join Instagram is different for everyone, and the conditions for using it or avoiding it all together are up to you, but at Beauty Redefined, we recommend you seriously rethink joining Instagram. Let her experience life as more than a body as long she can, because logging on Instagram marks the day when that could end for too many girls.
When your kid comes to you asking to join Instagram, why not take the opportunity to talk with her about what peer-reviewed, legitimate research and self-reported feedback from her peers brings to light with a pro and con list:
- You’ll be able to interact with your friends online.
- You won’t be left out of what is happening on Instagram.
- You will be exposed to other messages and ideas and images you might not see otherwise, like body positivity, activism in all its forms, and people doing good in the world.
- You’ll be able to express yourself through posting pictures and captions.
- You will be more likely to experience increased loneliness. Instagram is isolating and leads to feelings of FOMO, or fear of missing out. While you might like the interaction from likes, follows, and DMs, in the long run you are left feeling more alone.
- You will be more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and the more time you spend on social media, the worse these symptoms get.
- You will be more likely to compare yourself to the girls and women you see on Instagram, and self-comparison causes you to feel less love and unity toward those you are comparing yourself to AND it makes you feel worse about yourself.
- You will be more likely to be preoccupied with your looks (self-objectification). Your clothes, your angles, your skin, your hair, your shape, your size will all be front and center in your mind, and it’s very difficult to focus on anything else, whether you like the way you look or not. This hurts your schoolwork, your relationships, your health, your mental and physical capabilities, and your happiness.
- You will be more likely to experience negative body image (feel bad about your body) because you will be more sensitive to how you appear to others as a result of seeing so many idealized photos, ads, and highlight reels.
- You will be more likely to be exposed to harmful messages and ideas and images you might not see otherwise, like rampant objectification, pornography, self-harm, pro-anorexia (pro-ana) messaging, digital manipulation of photos, influencers selling you aspirational ideals that lead to feelings of shame and self-consciousness, and beauty represented in very narrow, unattainable ways.
- You will be more likely to become desensitized to the messages that hurt you – that cause you to think about your body and your looks (self-objectification), and make you feel shame about your body. After only a short time, those things that once make you feel uncomfortable become your new “comfort zone” that is very uncomfortable.
If your daughter decides to join IG despite the cons she learns about, or already spends time scrolling through social media (especially IG), please help her practice self-care. Instagram can be used as self-help or self-harm, and every user must make that continual choice for themselves.
The following questions are an excellent media literacy resource to help her (and you) look out for herself with the following critical questions as she scrolls:
- Does this image/account encourage me to fixate on my own or other women’s appearance?
- Does this image/account spark body anxiety or feelings of shame?
- Am I engaging in self-comparison as I view these images?
- Does this account seek to profit from my insecurity by selling solutions to fix my “flaws?”
- Are these images promoting or reinforcing distorted ideals of what bodies and faces should look like – either through digital manipulation or featuring only one body type or “look?”
- Would men who think women are only valuable as sexual objects enjoy viewing these images?
- Does it encourage me to see women as bodies first and foremost?
If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, consider unfollowing, unsubscribing, limiting, or otherwise avoiding this type of content.
On top of being a critical media consumer, we suggest a few very important rules for your kids to follow if they do use Instagram:
- Make your profile private and NEVER allow anyone to follow you that you don’t know and interact with in real life.
- Only follow people you know in real life.
- Never scroll through the explore page – it’s just not safe. It allows users access to every public post, and molds itself to the user’s interests, which for girls and women are often body-focused, looks-oriented, and objectifying.
- Set a time limit: Only spend X number of minutes on Instagram each day – the less time spent on social media, the better for the user’s mental health and well-being.
- If the content you are viewing doesn’t pass the media literacy test above, unfollow immediately.
Because we are taught through so many cultural messages that our bodies and looks are our primary source of power, value, and happiness, we get confused about what confidence feels like. We believe this major lie that feeling confident in ourselves equals feeling confident in our looks, and we leave it at that. We believe our bodies define us, and our self-esteem is dependent upon how good we think we look to others. Instagram makes this problem worse. It heightens our awareness of our bodies and our looks and teaches us that we are our bodies, and that our bodies are our key to beauty, power, love, popularity, and happiness.
Our work at Beauty Redefined is based on the premise that positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good, it’s knowing your body *is* good regardless of how it looks. Your ability to experience positive body image frees you from the prison that locks you up decorating yourself, isolated, and missing out on purpose and power and real happiness. We don’t want one more girl stepping into womanhood with the added pressure of living her life on Instagram before she is old enough to realize her purpose, power, and worth beyond her body. She is more than a body, and you can help her see more and be more. If you or your daughter want more expertise in how to boost your body image, our online body image resilience course will do the trick. Check it out here.
If nothing else, take it from one of thousands of teens who have reached out to us to tell us about how social media (and taking much-needed breaks from social media) effects them:
Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.
Lexie Kite, Ph.D. and Lindsay Kite, Ph.D. are the co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to help women redefine the meaning and value of beauty in their lives through body image resilience.
Do you need help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome self-consciousness and get on to bigger and better things? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD.