New research suggests that Instagram is saturated with images depicting very lean and very muscular men. The study, which appears in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, found that posts depicting this type of body tend to receive more responses.
“I have always been very interested in body image and how people think about their own body, because I personally believe that the ‘relationship’ between us and our bodies is often underestimated — especially for and by men,” said study author Thomas Gultzow (@ThomasGultzow), a PhD candidate at the Care and Public Health Research Institute in the Netherlands.
“Realizing that social media is regularly used by a large proportion of the world population and that the information that is presented there could strongly affect our relationship with our own body, I believed that it was important to see how people used social media to communicate about body types. And once I started looking in the literature, it quickly became clear that men are underrepresented in this type of research, and then the idea of working specifically on this population really quickly arose.”
The researchers used a social media mining tool and searched a sample of influential male fitness accounts to collect a random sample of 1,000 fitness-related Instagram posts depicting men. They found that the majority of images showed muscular and lean white men.
Most of the posts showed men with low body fat, while only a small fraction depicted men with high body fat. Sixty-two percent of posts showed men with low body fat and 41% showed high muscularity, whereas only 6% showed men with high body fat and 17% showed low muscularity. Men with both low body fat and high muscularity (35%) represented the largest group with a specific body type.
“Social media seems very skewed in terms of presenting people’s bodies. You are much more likely to see the ‘classic adonis’ on Instagram than on the street. In fact, social media messages showing such men with more muscles and less fat were also engaged with more, resulting in more likes and comments,” Gultzow told PsyPost.
“Users may think that you have to look like this. If you feel your own body does not compare to that ideal, this may lead to negative feelings or unhealthy behaviors, such as extreme dieting or using unhealthy supplements. So, what I would like to say to anyone who is using Instagram: be aware of this skewed reality, this is not real life!”
But the positive and negative consequences of the predominance of muscular and lean bodies on Instagram is still unclear. Future research is needed to examine whether this type of content motivates men to become physical active themselves or whether it increases men’s body dissatisfaction.
“Based on Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, body image pictures on Instagram may, through positive modeling, help to counteract the obesity epidemic, with the portrayals leading men to lead more healthy lifestyles. On the negative side, the skewed images may lead to male body dissatisfaction, depression and eating disorders. We can use this knowledge to educate our patients about the false sense of reality often portrayed on social media,” said Brenda K. Wiederhold, the editor-in-chief of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
“Men are still somewhat underrepresented in body image research, so we often draw conclusions based on studies that include either only women or just a handful of men. I think it would be really relevant to conduct in-depth studies in which men are shown images of different body types and also asked about their experiences and emotions. That way, we can study the effect these images have on men; that information could possibly be used to help men,” Gultzow said.
“I conducted this research as part of my scientific internship as finale part of my M.Sc. in ‘Health Education and Promotion’ and, fortunately, I was working with a great international team (Dr. Jeanine P.D. Guidry from the Robertson School of Media and Culture in Virginia, and Dr. Francine Schneider and Dr. Ciska Hoving from Maastricht University in the Netherlands), that combined expertise in health communication, digital health and the intersection between health and social media and they saw the need in this too and so we quickly started working on this topic,” he added.
“Nowadays, I am conducting research regarding another health communication topic: mainly how we can use digital solutions to help people that want to quit smoking to make an informed decision regarding smoking cessation. However, I am still really interested in social media and how it influences us and our health, so I am always trying to fit this interest into my current work somehow. For example, Dr. Guidry and I are currently running a project about how Instagram users communicate about HIV.”
The study, “Male Body Image Portrayals on Instagram“, was authored by Thomas Gultzow, Jeanine P.D. Guidry, Francine Schneider, and Ciska Hoving.