According to a recent study, women are more likely to post a negative comment on a social media image of a plus-size model if the image has already received negative comments from others. On a positive note, the study found that exposure to images of plus-size models increased mood and reduced body dissatisfaction, regardless of the comment section. The findings were published in Behaviour Change.
In the past decade, a body positivity movement has erupted on social media, with people of all body types sharing untouched images of their bodies and speaking out against the media’s unrealistic beauty standards. A key motive behind the movement is to quash the idealization of thin female bodies and instead spread acceptance of all body types. Notably, exposure to this type of body positive content has been found to lift mood and improve body satisfaction among women.
Nevertheless, anti-fat attitudes remain entrenched in Western culture, and body positive content is not always well received. Given the anonymity afforded online, it is easy for social media content to attract negative comments, and images of plus-size models are often targeted. Study authors Daniel Talbot and his team wanted to explore people’s reactions to body positive content while taking into account the influence of the comment section.
“This topic is interesting to me as social media use is now a significant, perhaps the most significant, part of our social lives. A lot of research has examined the impact of persistent presentation of women with ideal bodies via social media, and the negative impact of this exposure,” explained Talbot, a lecturer at the University of Notre Dame in Australia and registered psychologist.
“Few studies have looked at examining the psychological impact of more realistic bodies on social media, and the users’ general reception of these bodies. Ultimately, we are trying examine the question: can a representation of diverse body types improve the way people feel about their own bodies and shift normative body ideals towards a more realistic body type?”
The researchers conducted an experiment among 92 female Australian university students who were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. All participants were shown four Facebook photos of plus-size models. Depending on the condition, each photo was accompanied by five comments that were either positive, negative, or neutral. After being presented with each photo, the students were asked to leave an anonymous comment of their own underneath the other comments. At the start of the study, and again after viewing the photos of the models, the students completed assessments of mood and body dissatisfaction.
When the researchers analyzed the comments left by participants, it seemed clear that the comment section had influenced their responses. Overall, those who were exposed to negative comments under the model photos were significantly more likely to leave a negative comment themselves, and those who saw positive comments were significantly more likely to leave a positive comment.
The impact of exposure to negative comments was striking — while only 4% of those who saw positive comments decided to leave a negative comment, 40% of those who saw negative comments left a negative comment. These findings suggest that witnessing weight-based bullying can inspire bystanders to become perpetrators themselves, adding their own harmful commentary.
“User comments associated with images on social media can significantly impact how we behave (and comment) in the online space. If we see a negative comment, we are more likely to leave a negative comment ourselves,’ Talbot told PsyPost.
Talbot and his colleagues say it is unclear why being exposed to others’ negative comments had this effect on participants. It could be that these participants felt compelled to leave a non-complementary comment of their own in order to comply with the norms of the comment section. On the other hand, it could be that reading other people’s negative comments made participants feel more comfortable sharing their true feelings about the images, which were inherently negative. Either way, the study offers cautionary evidence that negative social media comments can trigger more negative comments.
Importantly, there were also some encouraging findings. In all conditions, the majority of participants left positive comments — 87% in the positive condition, 45% in the negative condition, and 51% in the neutral condition — suggesting an overall positive reaction to the plus-size models. The images also seemed to have a positive effect on participants’ mental health. After viewing the images of the plus-size models, the students experienced significant increases in mood and significant drops in body dissatisfaction. These positive outcomes were observed in all conditions, regardless of the comment section, lending evidence to the psychological benefits of exposure to body positive content.
“The main take away is that we have an innate drive to compare our bodies with the bodies of others, and this includes bodies portrayed on social media. This comparison can have positive effects on our mood, and the way we feel about our bodies if the bodies we view represent more realistic body types,” Talbot told PsyPost.
The researchers acknowledge that their findings may have been distorted by social desirability bias — participants may have been motivated to leave more socially acceptable comments to avoid coming across unfavorably.
“Men are also significantly impacted by social media, and unrealistic body ideals, and research suggests that pressure on men to look thin and muscular is increasing. We also need to investigate whether these same exposure effects exist for men,” Talbot added.
“Another population of interest is children. Young children are now being persistently exposed to social media content and undoubtedly this is having an impact on their perception of what constitutes the ideal, or even an ‘acceptable’ body. Future research needs to focus on the experience of children on social media, including any benefits and costs of exposure to a diverse range of body types.”
The study, “‘She Should Not Be a Model’: The Effect of Exposure to Plus-Size Models on Body Dissatisfaction, Mood, and Facebook Commenting Behaviour”, was authored by Daniel Talbot, Hannah Mansfield, Samantha Hayes, and Evelyn Smith.