Experts explain why your favorite celebs' posts might actually make you feel worse about yourself.

By Julia Malacoff
May 01, 2019
Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

Social media has become an increasingly dramatic environment for body image in the past few years, and celebrities have had a huge influence on this shift—for better or worse. (Related: How Bad Are Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for Mental Health?)

On one hand, countless celebrities post Photoshopped and Facetuned images of themselves that portray an unrealistic beauty standard.

On the other hand, many celebs are using social media as a platform to share their own body-image struggles as a way to both relate to their fans and fight back against these unrealistic standards. Case in point, Lady Gaga defended her "belly fat" on Instagram. Chrissy Teigen explained she hasn't lost all of her "baby weight"—and probably won't try to. Demi Lovato called out a journalist for suggesting her weight was the most newsworthy thing about her.

Plus, celebrities who are notorious for being less-than-honest about how they achieve their shapes—ahemKim Kardashian and "flat tummy" tea—are getting called out by other celebs for their sheer ridiculousness. The Good Place's Jameela Jamil has essentially made it her mission to call out celebrity diet endorsements. Because even though it's safe to assume that Kim K has an army of personal trainers, chefs, dietitians, and plastic surgeons helping her look the ways she does, it can be easy to forget that when someone with physical attributes society admires says they've found a quick, easy way for you to look just like them.

Overall, things are getting better on the celebrity-social-media front. Still, consuming it can have an impact on how you see your own body, how you view other people's bodies, and what you find attractive in general. That's not to say you should stop following celebs completely, but being armed with the knowledge of how celebrity social media culture may affect you—consciously and subconsciously—is key. (Related: How Body-Shaming Someone Else Finally Taught Me to Stop Judging Women's Bodies)

Celebrity bodies on social media impact how you see your own body.

Whether you're aware of it or not, you're probably comparing yourself to celebs you see on social. "It is natural—if often unhealthy—for humans to compare themselves to others," says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who deals with self-esteem and body image, and author of Joy From Fear. When "perfect" photos of "perfect" celebrities are put on a pedestal as the "ideal" standard, "those who are not able to achieve this truly impossible level of perfection secretly (or not-so-secretly) feel shamed and defective," she explains. (Related: The Number of Selfies You Take Could Affect Your Body Image)

The effect of viewing celebrity images on body image, especially in women, is well-documented in research. In one of the most famous studies on the topic, researchers showed elementary-school children pictures of thin celebrities or models. "The boys were very jokey about what they would have to do in order to look like the pictures, but the girls said things like 'You would have to not eat' or 'You would have to eat and then throw up,'" explains Taryn A. Myers, Ph.D., chair of the department of psychology at Virginia Wesleyan University and a body-image researcher.

Researchers have even looked into what happens when you actually try to look like celebrities: One study showed that middle school-aged girls were more negatively impacted in terms of body image and eating behaviors by manipulating their own selfies than by simply viewing traditional media images. Another study showed that posting selfies made women immediately feel anxious.

Yet another found that girls comparing themselves to images of celebrities on social media was related to body-image dissatisfaction and drive for thinness. (Interestingly, the same was not true for boys.) "So in general, viewing or posting images can really make us feel worse about our bodies, and this effect may be amplified for celebrity photos," says Myers.

And while everyone can be affected to some degree, there are some who are particularly likely to be negatively impacted by celebrity social media posts. "Social media has the biggest impact on those who are the most vulnerable, whose self-esteem comes from how others perceive or respond to them and who want to 'fit in,'" says Adrienne Ressler M.A., LMSW, a body-image specialist and vice president of professional development at The Renfrew Center Foundation. "Today, with reality shows so popular, one can imagine that, with luck, anyone can be a celebrity." (Hello, #BachelorNation.) In other words, if anyone can be a celebrity, it can feel like everyone is expected to be celebrity-worthy.

Even the comments you see on celebrity social media can impact you.

It's not just the celebrities' posts and images themselves that can affect you. Seeing celebrities get trolled or fat-shamed in social media comments may make you more likely to do it to others—whether that happens IRL or just in your head. (Related: These Social Media Features Make It Easier to Defend Against Hateful Comments and Encourage Kindness)

This is all thanks to something called social learning theory, experts say. "We often watch others and see what the consequences of their behaviors are before we choose to engage in those behaviors ourselves," explains Myers. "So if we see others making these negative comments with no repercussions (or even praise or 'likes'), then we are more likely to engage in those behaviors ourselves."

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is actively trolling each other just because that behavior has been modeled (although it could mean that for some people). More likely, people start trolling others—and themselves—mentally. A new study out of McGill University found that when women were exposed to instances of celebrity fat-shaming, they felt an increase in negative weight-related attitudes.

The researchers used data from an online survey that was available from 2004 to 2015, identifying 20 different fat-shaming events that happened in the media—like that time Scott Disick body-shamed Kourtney Kardashian for not getting back to her pre-pregnancy weight. (Ugh.) Then, they measured the level of implicit weight bias (or people's gut reactions to fatness and thinness) two weeks before and two weeks after these body-shaming incidents. The researchers noticed a spike in women's implicit anti-fat attitudes after each weight-shaming event, and the more "notorious" the event, the higher the spike. So, their instincts were altered to lean toward weight bias. Yikes.

Think about it: Have you ever said to yourself, "Oh, wow, that's really not a flattering outfit" about someone else? Or "Ugh, this dress totally makes me look fat. I shouldn't wear this" about yourself? These thoughts don't come out of nowhere, and even if you're keeping them to yourself, they can have an impact on how you treat yourself and how you approach and treat other people's bodies. "The more we are in the presence of negativity and crudeness, its familiarity causes us to get used to it, maybe not consciously finding it acceptable, but by its repetition over and over it becomes less shocking to us," explains Ressler. (Related: 6 Ways to Finally Stop Complaining for Good)

So the next time you find yourself thinking these thoughts, ask yourself: "Where did I get this idea that having this kind of body is bad? Where did I learn that clothes need to fit a certain way in order to be flattering?" Or even, "Why am I attaching so much value to physical appearance?" A lifetime of aesthetic values and diet culture can't be unlearned in an instant, but questioning the status quo can help you get closer to a healthier body image and avoid contributing to a cultural phenomenon that only serves to knock people down for not looking like a celebrity IRL.

On a positive note, some celebrities are taking the time to call out trolls and show how, even though they're famous, the comments of others still impact them.

After people said she looked fat at a cancer benefit event, Pink clapped back by posting a Notes app screenshot on Twitter: "While I admit that that dress didn't photograph as well as it did in my kitchen, I will also admit that I felt very pretty. In fact, I feel beautiful. So, my good and concerned peoples, please don't worry about me. I'm not worried about me. And I'm not worried about you either. I am perfectly fine, perfectly happy, and my healthy, voluptuous and crazy strong body is having some much deserved time off. Thanks for your concern. Love, cheesecake."

Here's help on how to consume celebrity social media while maintaining your self-assuredness.

While the celebrity social media landscape is changing, there's still plenty of work to be done. Some of that work is on you, to consume celebrity social media content in a way that protects you and your body image. (Related: How This Blogger Came to Realize That Body Positivity Isn't Always About the Way You Look)

Media literacy is key. "Inform yourself about how these celebrity images are manipulated even after the celebrities have personal trainers, make-up artists, etc.," suggests Myers. "And realize how unrealistic it is to try to meet that ideal as a normal human."

Keep social media in its place. "If there's something you like about a celebrity, notice what it is and the feelings you have around it—joy, desire, etc.," says Manly. "Notice that you don't have to act on it, buy it, or try to 'be' it; you can simply notice that you are appreciating an aspect of another person's life."

End the shaming cycle. "Stop calling yourself negative names," advises Ressler. "Catch yourself whenever you find yourself defining who you are in harsh or critical terms. Say to yourself, 'That's not me.'"

Put cognitive dissonance to work. Cognitive dissonance means experiencing thoughts or behaviors that are not consistent with your normal beliefs. "In this case, it would be saying things you like about your body rather than things you hate," explains Myers. "Studies show it is really effective as a way to combat body dissatisfaction in general, and a growing literature suggests it is also helpful on social media. I am personally conducting a study where I have women write a positive statement about either their bodies or something other than their appearance and post it to Instagram. I am finding that any type of cognitive-dissonance statement is effective in increasing self-esteem, particularly appearance-related self-esteem, as well as improving mood."

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