New research published in The Journal of Psychology sheds light on the impact of Instagram advertising on body image. The findings indicate that exposure to ads featuring thin or curvy models on the popular social media platform can influence late-adolescent girls’ perceptions of their own bodies, potentially leading to an increased willingness to take drastic appearance-altering actions.
Instagram, the visual and interactive social media giant, has become an integral part of many young people’s lives. While it’s well-known that social media platforms can shape our views on beauty and body ideals, this study takes a deeper dive into the consequences of Instagram advertising, specifically focusing on late-adolescent girls.
Our society’s beauty standards often revolve around body types – thin and curvy – which are prominently showcased in advertising. This study aimed to explore how frequently encountering these body ideals on Instagram affects girls’ body image and their willingness to engage in actions to attain these ideals.
The researchers were motivated by a growing concern regarding the potential negative impact of advertising on body image, especially among impressionable young minds. Prior research has highlighted how exposure to idealized body types in media can lead to body dissatisfaction and even unhealthy behaviors.
“With a background in marketing, I have always gravitated towards research exploring the unintended consequences of advertising, specifically its impact on body image in young girls and women,” said study author Jannatul Shimul Ferdousi, a PhD student in the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University.
“Over the years, I realised that while extensive research has been conducted on how traditional media advertising (e.g., in television and magazines) influences body image, research exploring how advertising on social media platforms like Instagram may contribute to body image is sparse. So, that is what inspired me to look into this topic.”
The study’s sample included 284 female participants aged 17-19 who were enrolled in an undergraduate psychology course at an Australian university. Participants were recruited through a research participant pool and had to meet specific inclusion criteria, including being regular Instagram users and not having diagnosed eating disorders or body dysmorphia. The study involved surveying these participants to gauge their exposure to Instagram advertising featuring both thin and curvy models.
To measure the impact of this exposure, the researchers used several variables, including body image preference (whether participants preferred thin or curvy body types), upward physical appearance comparisons (how often participants compared themselves to these idealized images), body satisfaction (how content participants were with their own bodies), and the willingness to take actions to become thinner or curvier.
The researchers found that participants who reported greater exposure to thin or curvy models through Instagram advertising were more likely to prefer those body types. This suggests that Instagram ads may shape individuals’ preferences for certain body ideals.
Importantly, exposure to these body ideals was linked to a willingness to engage in actions to achieve them. Those who preferred thin bodies were more willing to take actions to become thinner (e.g., dieting or surgery to reduce waist size), while those who preferred curvy bodies were more willing to pursue actions to become curvier (e.g., surgery to increase breast size and surgery to increase buttocks size).
“The research reveals that exposure to thin and curvy models in Instagram advertising is associated with an increased willingness to pursue potentially harmful actions in pursuit of respective body ideals,” Ferdousi told PsyPost. “This highlights the need for updated policies and interventions so that they take into account the impact of newer advertising platforms and body ideals on body image.”
The study also revealed that body dissatisfaction played a significant role. Participants who felt dissatisfied with their bodies were more inclined to consider taking actions to change their appearance. Similarly, thin body preference was found to mediate the link between exposure to thin models and the willingness to become thinner, while curvy body preference mediated the connection between exposure to curvy models and the willingness to become curvier.
The researchers observed that making upward physical appearance comparisons, i.e., comparing oneself to models in ads, contributed to this process. Participants who frequently compared themselves to the models they saw in Instagram ads were more likely to experience body dissatisfaction and express a willingness to change their appearance.
As with any scientific study, there are limitations to consider. “This study used a cross-sectional design that generated correlational data only, so we cannot claim causation,” Ferdousi explained. “Future studies should use experimental approaches to examine the body-related consequences of exposure to thin and curvy models in Instagram advertising.”
The study, “Through Thick and Thin: Exposure to Instagram Advertisements and Willingness to Engage in Appearance-Altering Practices“, was authored by Jannatul Shimul Ferdousi, Graham L. Bradley, and Joan Carlini.