It’s impossible not to be bombarded with images of very thin women and overly masculine men every day.
In a study conducted in person and online by the University of St. Andrews in 2014, Scottish researchers found the unrealistic expectations of how men and women should look is heavily influenced by the Internet.
Results showed people without Internet access preferred feminine men and masculine women with higher body fat, whereas people with Internet access were more likely to find skinny women and masculine men more attractive.
The study examined a sample of 197 men and women 18 to 25 years old from El Salvador with and without Internet access.
Previous studies found similar results, but the samples were mainly from developed countries where most people have access to the web.
Kristen Ritchie, a first year Humber Human Resources Management student said viewing these representations as a healthy reality is problematic.
“Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The goal should be for a healthy body and mind, not for a thigh gap,” Ritchie said.
Ritchie said there’s always been pressure for people to look a certain way, but thinks social media highlights and perpetuates unrealistic ideals.
Jill Andrew, a body image consultant, public speaker, and co-founder of the Body Confidence Canada Awards, said it’s critical to remember most of the images online have been doctored. Her message: it’s important to arm ourselves with education.
“I’m a huge supporter of media literacy. I’m a huge supporter of having conversations with young people and with ourselves as adults around the fact these images are not real,” Andrew said.
People need to understand there are different body weights and shapes that are perfectly fine for different people, said Andrew.
“It’s not as simple as looking at someone and saying, ‘Oh, you’re thin, you’re healthy,’” she said. “We fall into that trap a lot.”
Social media expert and University of Toronto PhD candidate Jenna Jacobson said living in a visual culture heavily influences society’s perceptions, but that it’s not as simple as placing the blame on the Internet.
People explored the impact of photoshopping models in magazines in the past, but the focus has now shifted to social media, she said, and it’s important to note that social media also has beneficial effects.
“Rather than vilify social media, we also need to look at how social media builds community and has a positive impact on many people’s lives,” Jacobson said.