Traditional media disclaimer labels are ineffective at improving women’s body image; But what about social media disclaimers?

Whether you are reading a magazine, scrolling through social media, or just walking past shop fronts or advertisements, it is likely that you will come across glamorous images of thin women living a seemingly perfect lifestyle. These images generally promote a very narrow beauty ideal that is unattainable for most women. These images are also often edited, using appearance-enhancing lighting and photo editing filters, apps, and programs. Thus, the beauty ideal being promoted in these images is not real or achievable.

Decades of research suggests that looking at these idealised images can make women feel bad about their body and increase negative mood (Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008), particularly for women who are already highly concerned about their body. This may be because women compare their own appearance to the women in the images and judge themselves to be less attractive and/or because these images encourage women to internalise the societal beauty ideal.

Government bodies and policy makers are becoming more aware of the prevalence and detrimental effects of body image concerns within their communities and are looking for ways to reduce these concerns. One preventative strategy that has attracted considerable interest has been the use of disclaimer labels in advertisements, which inform viewers when images have been digitally altered. In 2012, Israel passed a law requiring all advertisers to disclose when their photos of models have been retouched, and France introduced similar legislation in 2015. The underlying rationale behind the use of disclaimers is that by informing viewers that the image is unrealistic, viewers will choose to engage in fewer comparisons with the people in the image, which would reduce the negative body image outcomes that arise from exposure to such idealised images (Bury, Tiggemann, & Slater, 2017; Paraskeva, Lewis-Smith, & Diedrichs, 2017). 

Despite the increasing adoption of laws around the world encouraging the use of disclaimer labels, the existing evidence suggests that they are largely ineffective in improving women’s body image (e.g., Ata, Thompson, & Small, 2013; Bury, Tiggemann, & Slater, 2016; Bury et al., 2017; Tiggemann, Brown, Zaccardo, & Thomas, 2017). These results demonstrate that disclaimers do not produce their intended effect, suggesting that the introduction of ‘Photoshop’ laws may well be a pointless endeavour in addressing body image concerns.

Similar to the recommendations for traditional media, a recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK recommended that social media platforms add disclaimer labels to images that have been edited online in an attempt to reduce any negative impact of those images on users’ body image (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017). While previous research suggests that attaching disclaimer labels to traditional media images is ineffective, it is unclear whether or not this holds true for social media images.

Unlike traditional media disclaimers that are posted from an external standpoint (e.g., “Warning: This image has been digitally altered”), people can add self-disclaimers to the comments or captions attached to their idealised and edited images on social media. Indeed in 2015, Australian teenager and social media influencer Essena O’Neill made headlines across the globe for her decision to quit social media and to re-caption a number of her Instagram photos, critiquing the staged and contrived nature of social media, and society’s over-emphasis on women’s appearance (Hunt, 2015). Unlike idealised traditional media images that are primarily staged and edited by third parties (e.g., professional photographer and graphic designer), idealised social media images are often staged and edited by the person in the image. Therefore, posting self-disclaimer comments on idealised social media images is likely to influence the impressions viewers form of the user. In regards to Essena’s case, while she did receive some praise in the media for speaking out about the industry and critiquing society’s beauty standards (Hunt, 2015), she also received a barrage of criticism, with many claiming that she was not authentic, and that she had quit social media purely for the attention (McClusky, 2016). 

Together with my colleague Dr Elise Holland, I conducted an experimental study examining the influence of self-disclaimer comments attached to idealised social media images on women’s body image, mood, and impressions of the person who posted the images/disclaimers on social media. Similar to the research on traditional media disclaimers, we found that social media self-disclaimers were ineffective at improving women’s body image and reducing negative mood (Fardouly & Holland, in press). Disclaimers did, however, impact perceptions of the women posting them, with participants forming a less positive impression of the women who attached disclaimer comments to their social media images.

Disclaimers may be ineffective at reducing women’s body dissatisfaction because they do not prevent women from being exposed to the idealised image (Paraskeva et al., 2017). Regardless of whether women are informed that an image is digitally edited or staged, the woman’s appearance in the image is being portrayed as ideal and attractive, and thus women may continue to internalize that ideal and compare their appearance to the woman in the image. Therefore, researchers and policy makers could focus their efforts on other techniques to improve women’s body image. There may not be an easy and quick way to reduce the impact of idealized images on body image, so we may need to work towards reducing the number of idealized images that we are exposed to in the first place. Further research is needed to find effective techniques to both improve body image and change the media environment to which people are exposed.
 

Jasmine Fardouly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working at Macquarie University's Centre for Emotional Health in Australia. Her research focuses on social influences on body image, particularly the influence of social media and social comparisons. She is currently working on research examining ways to reduce any negative impact of social media usage on body image.

References 
Ata, R. N., Thompson, J. K., & Small, B. J. (2013). Effects of exposure to thin-ideal media images on body dissatisfaction: Testing the inclusion of a disclaimer versus warning label. Body Image, 10, 472-480. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2013.04.004
Bury, B., Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. (2016). The effect of digital alteration disclaimer labels on social comparison and body image: Instructions and individual differences. Body Image, 17, 136-142. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.03.005
Bury, B., Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. (2017). Disclaimer labels on fashion magazine advertisements: Does timing of digital alteration information matter? Eating Behaviors, 25, 18-22. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.08.010
Fardouly, J., & Holland, E. (in press). Social media is not real life: The effect of attaching disclaimer-type labels to idealized social media images on women’s body image and mood. New Media & Society. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444818771083
Grabe, S., Ward, L. M., & Hyde, J. S. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 460-476. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.460
Hunt, E. (2015). Essena O’Neill quits Instagram claiming social media is ‘not real life’. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/nov/03/instagram-star-essena-oneill-quits-2d-life-to-reveal-true-story-behind-images
McClusky, M. (2016). Instagram star Essena O’Neill breaks her silence on quitting social media. Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/4167856/essena-oneill-breaks-silence-on-quitting-social-media/
Paraskeva, N., Lewis-Smith, H., & Diedrichs, P. C. (2017). Consumer opinion on social policy approaches to promoting positive body image: Airbrushed media images and disclaimer labels. Journal of Health Psychology, 22, 164-175. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1359105315597052
Royal Society for Public Health. (2017). #StatusOfMind: Social media and young people's mental health and wellbeing. Retrieved from https://www.rsph.org.uk/our-work/policy/social-media-and-young-people-s-mental-health-and-wellbeing.html
Tiggemann, M., Brown, Z., Zaccardo, M., & Thomas, N. (2017). “Warning: This image has been digitally altered”: The effect of disclaimer labels added to fashion magazine shoots on women’s body dissatisfaction. Body Image, 21, 107-113. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2017.04.001

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