Filtering the Truth

2nd October 2015

Clare Finney looks at how image manipulation is changing young people’s perception of body image...

Shot one, ‘Before’: a young woman in her mid to late twenties standing in stark light in mismatched underwear. She’s not big by any means, but she’s got curves and she looks, well, kind of normal in size. Cut now to ‘After’ and it is an entirely different girl. No – on second glance, it’s the same girl, but better looking. More toned. More sexy. The better underwear helps, but there’s something else as well. A smile? A pose? The secret, for those who haven’t guessed of course, is Instagram.

It is the photo-led social media tool that makes an Annie Leibowitz or a David Bailey out of anyone who happens to have a smart phone – that is, everyone. It is one of hundreds of such apps circulating in iTunes, promising tints, filters, fades, adjustments in colour and contrast and more. It’s good fun, and for the most part encourages creativity among those who might otherwise balk at the camera. There is, though, a dark side: the increasing numbers of young people who confuse these heavily edited images with reality.

Earlier this summer, NHS figures suggested the number of teenagers admitted to hospital with eating disorders has almost doubled in the last three years. The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) were unsurprised by the result, and said that social media in the form of photo editing and sharing apps, was largely to blame. It’s a simplistic argument, and as a former sufferer myself I’d argue that it risks downplaying what is a serious disease with many complex, interlinking factors. Nevertheless the role social media plays in the rampant spread of eating disorders amongst both sexes must not be ignored.

I spoke to the woman in the aforementioned ‘before’ and ‘after’ grams: Sophie Kay, a personal trainer who, prior to her Instagate, ran the quietly successful Fitology Way in London. “It was actually part of a blog article about myths in the fitness industry,” she explained. “I wanted to show most people in the fitness industry are not ripped, or size 8 supermodels who don’t eat pizza. Exercising six times a week – which I do – is not going to change my bone structure.” Her entire blog post makes for an interesting read – but that’s not what made Sophie’s name world famous by the next day.

It was those shots that went viral: one normal, one enviably attractive. “All I did in the three minutes between the two photos was to turn off the overhead light, put on underwear that fit better, twist my body slightly to the side to show off my best angle, flex and, of course, add a filter,” she wrote underneath. “Even I have been guilty of only posting the most flattering selfies, but don’t trust what you see.” It is sage advice. Most adults know it really – but Instagram’s heaviest users are not adults, but vulnerable teenagers whose ability to think critically and discern fact from filter is far less than ours.

“What we see (when we work with young people) is that many are very naive when it comes to understanding that what they see might not be real – so few young people realise what they are seeing is photoshopped or might in any way not be factual,” says Dr Caz Nahman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who specialises in eating disorders and is on the RCPsych eating disorders executive committee. “Adolescence is one of the time periods where there is the most rapid physical, social and psychological change,” she continues. “Young people start to notice those around them where they fit in” – the human tribe, as it were – “so they are particularly sensitive to social comparisons.” What media like Instagram has achieved is to “bring these comparisons into the home.”

They are immediately accessible. At the touch of a touchscreen, their vision is filled with the perfect-seeming lives of others. “When I was younger, these images were in a magazine and billboards. Now, they’re my friends. They’re that girl at school who was just average looking and now she’s stunning,” Sophie reminisces. “I think we were the last generation not to be bombarded by social media. Glamour and Mizz we read for an hour, then went back into our lives. Now teenagers are bombarded with body image, 24 hours a day.”

It could be nostalgia talking: Sophie, like me, is 27 – and, like me, feels sorry for young people growing up in this brave new world. Studies by psychiatrists, and feedback from teenagers asked about these issues confirms our worst fears. In 2012 a psychological study revealed that whereas someone in their 30s lives life and dips into social media, teenagers “live in social media and break out of it for family meals and school time,” explains Natasha Devon, founder of Body Gossip and the Self Esteem Team. “What they see on billboards and in magazines doesn’t bother them. They know that’s not real. But their online existence is their reality according to their brain.”

This ‘reality’ is all pervasive. When Natasha first started going in to schools and colleges to talk about body image, she talked celebrities and advertising. “They said, ‘I get that. What concerns me is I’m comparing myself to my friends.’ That their points of comparison are the real people who sit next to them in Maths and live on the next street, makes this all the more acute. Keeping up with the Joneses is as old as the saying sounds, but this is different. “You’re comparing your reality with everyone else’s fantasy lives: their best side, the filtered version. The Internet has changed the landscape of what it means to be a teenager,” Natasha continues, seriously.

As Dr Nahmann reminds me, social media “has only been around since about 2004. Yet both correlational and experimental evidence of harm emerged only three or four years later” – in the form of reports on cyber-bullying, body confidence, purchasing power and more. There are shifts in behaviour. “We now see people as young as 11 or 12 who can extensively tell you about rapid weight loss methods, types of diets and weights and clothing sizes of celebrities. Even five years ago this would have seemed unimaginable.” “Young people know much more than I knew at that age,” agrees Natasha. “Yet at the same time, they are so much more immature.”

‘They know a lot – but they don’t understand very much’ is the consensus among those who work with young people in schools these days. As Natasha reports, “often they’ll know the most explicit sexual acts, but won’t be able to name a single body part involved.”

“What the psychiatrists need to do is to harness Instagram to give more positive public health messages,” explains Dr Nahmann. “What parents and teachers need to do is to educate young people about social media, encourage positive self-esteem and encourage a level of cynical questioning, making sure sleep, school work, time with family and friends etc is not replaced by the smart phone.”

This is easier said than done: smart phones are scientifically addictive. They provoke dopamine – a neurotransmitter that stimulates your reward centre. “They’re the devil on our shoulder. We know we need to reduce the time we spend on them but we can’t,” Natasha explains. She describes the current generation of 12 to 18 year olds as ‘guinea pigs’ of social media use. They’re involved at an increasingly young age – about a third of the Year Sevens they speak to have accounts, and by the time they get to Year Nine they are immersed in it. “We won’t know what the effect on them has been until 20 years have passed.”

“Parents might think they are supervising their young person’s Internet use, but they can be in the same room as the young person, not having a clue what the young person is looking at,” adds Dr Nahman. “The number of images and searches available is something unprecedented compared to the past.”

Fearful of copycats, Dr Nahman and Natasha are reluctant to list the worst offenders. “The ones they tell us about are ask.fm (we’ve had several young people post pictures of themselves asking #am I fat or #am I ugly or #am I hot and receiving streams of abusive messages) and ‘#thinspo’ or ‘#thinspiration’ – another favourite, where the young person often sees it as their friend and a source of comfort and validation,” Dr Nahman explains. These are ‘well known’ - among teenagers at least, and Instagram does apparently make some effort to shut them down. Still, you only need to google it – I just have – to know how effective that ‘effort’ has been.

Four hours ago @deadssuicide posted “being skinny is the only way I’ll be happy”. Yesterday @toofattoeatx posted “I won’t stop until I look like this”. Above her words are a selection of stomachs in stark black and white, so thin their hip bones jut out like cliffs, or the sharp chins of defiant teenagers. Her ultimate goal weight (UGW, it’s called), according to her profile, is 98lbs. Her #thinspo pictures have been reposted by hundreds of fans.

This is, quite literally, the thin end of the wedge. There are other, less obvious hashtags to which desperate teens will migrate should one be blocked or disabled. There are trends, like the thigh gap or the much coveted ‘coin in collarbone’. These myths can be debunked. “When I speak in schools I show girls how if push my bum out slightly, a thigh gap appears. I’m size 16,” says Natasha. “Anyone can make a thigh gap. Equally, you can be very, very thin and not fit a coin in your collarbone if your bone structure is not the right shape.” Once again it’s a case of critical thinking, in which photos like Sophie’s speak volumes, and, of course, ensuring that there’s as much diversity in your online ‘reality’ as there is in your ‘offline’ world.

“The postives of social media are that they you can find people who think the same way as you, when you thought you were the only one. That’s reassuring. The negatives are, if everyone in your world has a flat stomach that will feed your obsession,” Natasha explains. She cites one, terrifying example: a girl she saw in the gym, doing sit ups while looking at her phone with one hand. Looking closer, Natasha could see her scrolling through a stream of Instagrammed ab images. “That’s when it gets dangerous. One of the things the Self Esteem Team do is invade your news feed with positive talking points – not clichés, just something invigorating to create the right start to your day.”

Social media has had its plus points: models today are more likely to be dictated by Twitter and the like than the dictates of agencies these days, which is how Tess Holliday got her job. For those who’ve missed her – an omission which really takes some doing – she’s the size 26 model whose 800,000 instagram followers landed her a full time contract and the cover of several well known magazines. “Image-led media has allowed us to set the agenda of what we want to see – so we are less force-fed the idea of beauty by the press and by brands” said Natasha. That said, though, if teenagers are filling their feeds with thinspirations, Tess Holliday is not who they’re going to see.

“The beliefs around weight loss tips on social media can be hard to shake – even when young people have ended up ill in hospital. Who would one rather believe,” asks Dr Nahman, “a middle aged slightly uncool psychiatrist – or a thin, glamorous young person selling a cool image and a lifestyle and way of being?”

Research suggests children are so involved in social media that parents, particularly the technophobic, may feel powerless. They shouldn’t be. “What we’ve heard from young people is that they’re really pleased when their parents take a positive interest in their social life, online and off. Yes, you’ll probably think the apps stupid and pointless, but don’t let on.” Understand how they work and your child’s relationship to them early on, Natasha continues, and you’ll open the communication channels: “then, if they’ve a problem, they feel they can come to you.” The same applies to all difficult conversations: “you can’t wait until they are self harming and then ask how they feel if you’ve never had a chat about feelings before.”

She calls it an emotional vocabulary. My mum called it a cup of tea, but it serves the same purpose, encouraging kids to know and understand what they want independently of their peers. “We say to the kids, our brains create a reality based on our own values and expectations – what we want to express.” Family can – and should influence that. “At ten years old, sit down with them and ask what they think a friend should be; what a happy life look likes,” she advises. If you can instill the right values before social media inevitably tightens its grip, you might just find #effyourbeautystandards (Tess Holliday’s hastag), #unfilteredlife (recommended by Sophie Kay) and of course the wonderful #selfesteem team might become their defining trends.

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