Selfie-image problem: 9 in 10 young women edit, filter photos before posting them online

LONDON — Long before social media appeared and changed the way people consume media, young women already had to deal with society’s unrealistic expectations of feminine beauty. Now, researchers from City, University of London say the age of social media is only making things worse.

Their report finds 90 percent of 175 surveyed young women and nonbinary people say they filter or edit all of their photos before posting them online. This includes evening out skin tone, whitening teeth, reshaping jaw or nose lines, and even shaving off some weight.

“A critique of perfection ran through the research like a bass track, with young people telling me that they feel overwhelmed by images that are ‘too perfect,'” Professor Rosalind Gill, from the university’s Gender and Sexualities Research Centre, says in a media release. “Women of color, disabled women and gender nonconforming folk told me they rarely see anyone like them in the media.”

Researchers suggest this survey paints a picture of a generation of young women angry at a mass media they consider “too white,” “too heterosexual,” and too obsessed with “narrow definitions of beauty.”

Are young women under scrutiny all the time now?

Many in the public are aiming to move away from ideas modern society considers antiquated and misogynistic. The findings suggest the opposite is happening. Social media and smartphones have simultaneously narrowed what people consider beautiful. Study authors add technology has created an entire generation of young people who feel like they’re constantly under a microscope.

Most young women in the survey said they’re frequently bombarded with tailored ads for beauty products and cosmetic surgeries. One 21-year-old participant adds, “once you look, you will never be allowed to forget.”

“With nearly 100 million photos posted every single day on Instagram alone, we have never been such a visually dominated society,” Prof. Gill explains. “Posting on social media can produce the intense pleasure of ‘getting likes’ and appreciative attention, but it is also a source of huge anxiety for most young women. I was struck by young women saying to me again and again: ‘I feel judged’.”

Pandemic adding to mental health challenges

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse.

“Day after day, reports were published highlighting the devastating mental health impacts of the pandemic on young people: their education suddenly halted, their freedoms curtailed, with many experiencing financial hardship, emotional difficulties or bereavement,” the researcher continues. “This research helps to shed light on how a diverse sample of young people navigated this challenging time, as well as offering more general insights into their lives.”

“In some ways, young people’s familiarity with online tools and platforms better prepared them (relative to older groups) for the lockdown period in which so many aspects of life moved online – including work, education, psychological and health services, and social lives,” Gill concludes. “In other ways, as this report shows, they experienced heightened pressure and distress.”

The findings appear in the report, Changing the perfect picture: Smartphones, social media and appearance pressures.

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