No filter needed – ‘Insta’ diversity

A couple of weeks ago, while scrolling through my Instagram feed, up popped a picture of Alexandra Shulman, former editor of British Vogue, in a swimsuit; undoctored, natural, highlighting all of her 59 year old self.  It stopped me in my tracks, mainly I think because it was in stark contrast to the homogeneous representation of beauty that the magazine she was at the helm of for 25 years propagated, and was consistently met with criticism for.

There is a sense of melancholy in how an undoctored picture of a 59-year-old in a bikini is seen as an act of revolution. For women in Western cultures, the mass media tends to portray slender or thin bodies as attractive and associates them with success, youthfulness, or social acceptability, in contrast to overweight bodies, which are often linked to a lack of control or laziness, leading women to be dissatisfied or pressuring them to either lose weight or be thin (Grogan, 1999: 6; Mask & Blanchard, 2011:54).

Social cognitive theory of mass communication (Bandura, 2001) articulates the important role of mass media in shaping individuals’ cognitions and behaviours. It stresses the importance of human agency and observational learning in understanding human behaviour (Bandura, 2001). As such, when images of certain physical body shapes and sizes are presented by the mass media to women, norms or expectation of what their bodies should look like are created. Research suggests that for women negative body image is caused either by them perceiving their bodies as being different than they actually are, or because of unrealistic expectations, or distorted beliefs which are often shaped by images in their external environments (Blood, 2005:2). Traditional media has an influence on body image, and research has shown that exposure to media images can be associated with negative or unhealthy body image (Halliwell, 2015; Sidesmoore & Tochkov, 2011).

However, as mediated content is transitioning from traditional to more user-generated content since the everyday individual can now be an active producer, (Marshall 2010: 38) research has also shown that user content and social network content impacts how people feel about themselves (de Vries & Kühne, 2015) and that social media images are as influential as images found in traditional media. Social media sites and apps present users with images they seek, but also with images that the user did not actively seek out from others’ posts, thus providing users with images that could potentially, refreshingly, present more diverse images of the female body (Andsager, 2014:407). 

The social networking app, Instagram, is currently the fastest growing social network site globally (Wagner, 2015) and presently has over 700 million monthly users. It can be interpreted a platform for changing how we perceive the body and beauty, and a potential vehicle for challenging normative portrayals of women’s bodies by corporate mass media images.Women can construct themselves how they desire in these spaces, create women advocacy spaces, and cyberspace itself acts as a means to undermine “the gatekeeping role of traditional print media and opening up new opportunities for the publication and dissemination of women’s work and other related interests” (Sampaio & Aragon, 2001:131).

By Shulman displaying such an image and the subsequent impact and response it elicited, it highlighted the power of social media in presenting diverse perspectives of beauty, but also diversity in all of its guises.

We must also understand that diversity is more than just a case of race, sex, creed, age or nationality. While these are important factors to consider, diversity also involves perceptions, thoughts, approaches to problems and insights. By individuals having the increased opportunity of control online, power is more dispersed (Conboy & Medina, 1997:147). After centuries of "body beautiful" and fashion trends dictating the flavour of the month of what is deemed an attractive woman, social media sites, it appears, are empowering people to both discuss and portray new perspectives and redefining beauty on their terms. They are amplifying freedom of expression and allowing us access to a megaphone that gives a different sound to the existing beauty and diversity rhetoric.

Through taking ownership and sharing her photograph on Instagram, Shulman has added to a more diverse perspective of beauty, and after 25 years, 306 issues, 1,600 fashion shoots as the editor of British Vogue, perhaps this is her best shoot yet - here’s to celebrating the diversity of beauty, and the beauty in diversity…in all its guises.

Zoe Shaughnessy has recently graduated from the London College of Fashion with an MSc in Applied Psychology in Fashion.

References
Andsager, J. L. (2014). Research directions in social media and body image. Sex Roles, 71(11-12), 407-413.
Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. Media psychology, 3(3), 265-299.
Blood, S. K. (2005). Body work: The social construction of women’s body image. Hove, UK: Routledge.
Conboy, K., Medina, N., & Stanbury, S. (Eds.). (1997). Writing on the body: Female embodiment and feminist theory. Columbia University Press.
de Vries, D. A., & Kühne, R. (2015). Facebook and self-perception: Individual susceptibility to negative social comparison on Facebook. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 217-221.
Grogan, S.  (1999). Body  image:  Understanding  body dissatisfaction  in  men,  women,  and  children. London: Routledge.
Halliwell, E. (2015). Future directions for positive body image research. Body image, 14, 177-189. 
Hempe, M. (2014). The use of social media in environmental health research and communication: an evidence review. Vancouver: Environmental Public Health. 
Mask, L., & Blanchard, C. M. (2011). The protective role of general self-determination against ‘thin ideal’media exposure on women’s body image and eating-related concerns. Journal of Health psychology, 16(3), 489-499.
Salomon, D. (2013). Moving on from Facebook: Using Instagram to connect with undergraduates and engage in teaching and learning. College & Research Libraries News, 74(8), 408-412.
Sampaio, A., & Aragon, J. (2001). Filtered Feminisms: Cybersex, E-Commerce, and the Construction of Women's Bodies in Cyberspace. Women's Studies Quarterly, 29(3/4), 126-147.
Sides-Moore, L., & Tochkov, K. (2011). The thinner the better? Competitiveness, depression and body image among college student women. College Student Journal, 45(2), 439-449.
Wagner, K. (2015). Instagram is the fastest growing major social network. Retrieved from: http://recode.net/2015/01/09/instagram-is-the-fastest-growing-major-social-network/





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