Putting the face in Facebook: How the social network shapes body image

Spending time on Facebook can influence how some women feel about their appearance.
Spending time on Facebook can influence how some women feel about their appearance.

Some people on public transit may glance over the shoulders of fellow commuters fiddling with their Facebook pages only for the voyeuristic pleasure of having a peek into someone else’s life. But behavioral science researcher Jasmine Fardouly, a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales in Australia, saw an opportunity.

While commuting to work, she watched as young women scrolled through their feeds and wondered what impact those images had on their thoughts about their own appearance. She was aware that research had shown that looking at photographs from traditional media, such as magazines or television, often left young women feeling dissatisfied with their bodies.

With that in mind, Fardouly and her colleagues conducted a study in the United Kingdom that examined the impact 10 minutes of surfing through Facebook had on a group of  women ages 17 to 25, and how their responses compared with those who looked at a control site that had nothing to do with physical appearance.

After the women finished browsing, the researchers them if they would share three things they would change about themselves. The answers could involve anything, not just appearance. Fardouly found that among the Facebook-browsing group, many women mentioned things they’d fix about their appearance.

A week later, Fardouly e-mailed the subjects, asking them how often they compared their appearance to others’. Here, they found a surprising connection. For women who make appearance comparisons more often, spending time on Facebook made them more concerned about their facial appearance, skin, or hair, Fardouly said. They were less apt to mention dissatisfaction with other aspects of their bodies.

Fardouly posits that the sheer amount of close-up images on Facebook accounts for this discrepancy. “There are more portrait images than full body photos,” she said.

Another finding they took away from the study, which was published in the journal Body Image: Those women who spent more time on Facebook reported more negative moods than those who surfed the other sites, a point that’s consistent with a bevy of research on how social media can negatively influence young women’s self-esteem.

Fardouly suggests that young women should follow Facebook pages that promote healthy body images, so as to keep a flow of positive photos in their feeds.

Image via Shutterstock

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
Follow Janelle on Twitter