A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reveals that sexualized body-positive content on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok improves young women’s body satisfaction to the same extent as non-sexualized body-positive content, debunking concerns that such combining body-positive posts with sexuality negatively impacts self-perception. The research shows that sexualized content within the context of body-positivity has more positive effects on young women’s body image than content regarding non-sexualized body ideals.
For years, researchers have examined how social media influences body image, with the dominant narrative often being that beauty ideals perpetuated on these platforms contribute to lower self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. However, this study turns some of those assumptions on their heads — focusing on the newer trend of body-positive content. Simply put, body positivity is a social movement that advocates for the acceptance of all body types and challenges society’s beauty norms.
The researchers aimed to delve into a hotly debated topic: Does the sexualization of body- positive messages affect how young women perceive themselves?
Concerns have been raised that even body-positive content, if sexualized, could have similar negative effects to idealized, unrealistic images. This study was designed to answer these questions, targeting women who are frequent users of Instagram and TikTok.
The multi-part study involved a group of 356 young Italian women, mostly highly educated and heterosexual, with an average age of around 25. These participants were randomly shown a short video with 10 Instagram images falling under one of three categories: sexualized beauty ideals, sexualized body positivity, or non-sexualized body positivity.
The study used various tools to measure participants’ mood, body satisfaction, and tendency to compare themselves to others before and after watching these videos. The second group of 316 young Italian women, most of whom were heterosexual students or working students. The methodology was the same for them — however, their videos contained sexualized women conforming to the cultural beauty ideal or women promoting body-positivity in a sexualized way.
Surprisingly, young women exposed to sexualized body-positive content experienced an increase in body satisfaction. On the contrary, those who saw content portraying sexualized beauty ideals experienced a decrease in body satisfaction. When discussing mood, participants generally felt less negative regardless of the type of content they were exposed to.
The study also discovered that sexualized beauty ideals led to “upward comparison”—meaning, participants felt worse when comparing themselves to women in those images. However, both sexualized and non-sexualized forms of body-positive content led to “downward comparison,” making participants feel better about themselves.
In other words, sexualization appears to work differently depending on the type of content to which women are exposed. Unhappiness and higher feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s own body only resulted when sexuality was combined with cultural beauty ideals as opposed to encouraging body-positivity.
Though the study offers valuable insights, it is worth noting some limitations. For instance, the study mainly focused on Italian women in a specific age range and did not include pre-measures for some variables, such as self-objectification and cosmetic surgery intentions. While the study does indicate that body-positive content can lead to more favorable body image perceptions, it does so through a mechanism of “downward social comparison,” which poses ethical concerns.
Regardless, this research provides a nuanced look at the effects of body-positive content on social media, as sexualization within body-positive content may not be as harmful as once thought. With the knowledge that sexualization could be beneficial in helping young women accept their bodies, the study also raises important ethical questions about the means through which body-positive messages achieve these effects.
The study, ““#SexyBodyPositive: When Sexualization Does Not Undermine Young Women’s Body Image“, was authored by Daniela Di Michele, Francesca Guizzo, Natale Canale, Francesca Carotta, Arianna Pollini, and Mara Cadinu.