Daily we are exposed to a multitude of images of unattainable beauty, thanks to social media. Before the digital age we would see images of impossibly perfect celebrities on billboards, TV, and in magazines, but we weren’t consumed by them for hours every day. Viewing pictures in magazines and on TV that show thin, attractive women or muscular, lean men has been shown to lead to body dissatisfaction.
And it’s not just the exposure to these images that’s damaging, it’s the pressure to have perfect profile pictures, comparing ourselves to others, and the dangers of constant analysis of our bodies.
Social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the primary way young people communicate with the outside world.
In 2013, two-thirds of teenagers had signed up to the Facebook app, where images were posted and shared millions of times a day.
“Kelsey Hibberd, from Southend in the UK recalls her high school years as ‘being miserable.’ She intentionally kept her Facebook friends to a minimum because she knew they were the ones who wouldn’t pick on her.”
‘I’d always been tall, and I was a bit podgy too. No-one seemed to notice at primary school, but then in Year 7 everyone started pointing at me, noticing things, making me think I was ugly and not special,’ she says.
She became self-conscious about small things like the shape of her eyebrows and size of her forehead, and was bullied from the age of 11 to 16. She knows firsthand that teenagers can have thousands of ‘friends’ online, yet still be vulnerable to having body image issues.
“You put forward your best self, and that can be a bit dangerous, because you naturally compare yourself to others,” Hibberd says.
In 2012, MPs recommended that all schoolchildren take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons.
An inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image revealed that girls from the age of five were worrying about their size and their appearance.
It was also noted that adults that about 60 per cent of people felt ashamed of the way they looked.
The report said pressure to look good had pushed up cosmetic surgery rates by nearly 20 per cent since 2008.
MP Caroline Nokes was a member of the parliamentary group which, with several charities, businesses and public bodies, is launching a campaign to change attitudes to body image, called Be Real: Body Confidence for Everyone.
She has visited schools and talked to 12- and 13-year-olds about how easily images in the media can be altered, enhanced, and improved to create something far from realistic.
“They understand because they go through the same process when they post images on social media sites.”
Most cameras in smart phones have built-in filters used to enhance even the most embarrassing selfies.
“I ask them to shut their eyes and put their hand up if they have ever enhanced an image on Facebook,” Ms Nokes says. Most of them raise their hands and one girl said every image she uploaded had been Photoshopped.
“Social media has a huge effect on young people’s body confidence because it cannot be ignored,” she explains.
“They can decide not to look at magazines and TV, but social media networks are the primary way they communicate and their main channel to the outside world. But they are seeing the world through a filter, and that’s not healthy. It’s really important we try to instill confidence that they can be who they are,” she says.
Her aim is to educate young people and challenge the images they see and admire, and to challenge retailers and businesses to be more responsible with advertising.
Dr Phillippa Diedrichs, senior research fellow at the University of West of England’s Center for Appearance Research, says research has been shown that social media trigger body image issues.
The more time spent on Facebook, the more likely people are to self-objectify themselves, she says.
She believes that incorporating a diverse range of bodies in the media can help people with body image issues.[i]
The anti-plastic surgery viewpoint includes concern that consumerism is recasting our true identity. Cosmetics and clothing companies, therapists, gyms, and surgeons make billions of dollars out of these insecurities. The result leads to more emptiness—we seek the next thing, without ever finding anything worthwhile. In its place is a new culture of inauthenticity.
Through surgically created features, young and healthy people are suddenly no longer satisfied with their looks, but want to copy something that never naturally existed first.
Social media has become so influential that it’s been credited with an increase in plastic surgery. Surgeons who responded to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Facial and Reconstructive Surgery reported a 31 per cent increase in requests from people who wanted to look better on social media.[ii]
The survey showed cosmetic surgery is in more demand than reconstructive procedures, accounting for 73 per cent of all plastic surgery operations. The most popular of those cosmetic procedures are nose jobs and fillers.[iii]
Health professionals, social commentators, and even politicians are concerned about the growing number of young people using cosmetic surgery to correct their poor body image.[iv]
Our body image is the mental picture we have of our own bodies and is how we see ourselves, regardless of how we look. Poor body image is often linked to dieting and many people try a panoply of different diets that don’t work. Yes, obesity and overweight are issues in the overfed West, but too many people diet because of poor body image, not because they want to be a healthy weight.[v]
Self-esteem describes the values, beliefs and attitudes we have towards ourselves. It reflects the overall opinion we have about ourselves. Healthy self-esteem is about accepting ourselves, despite our flaws and defects.[vi]
Fashion and appearance reign supreme today. Advertising bombards us with ways to improve our appearance every day. People are being told they are not good looking enough, so why not try Botox, fillers, or plastic surgery like their role models?
The Bible tells us that we need to take a different approach to appearance than fitting into society’s idea of beauty. Yet, we need to keep appearance in perspective. The Bible tells us that while our body is God’s unique creation and even a “temple” worthy of respect and care, it’s important not to resist the extremes we see in wider society.
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes,” wrote the apostle Peter. “Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).
This was written to warn Christians against adopting the expensive fashions and hours-long beauty routines of women in New Testament times. And while there’s nothing wrong with caring about our appearance, it’s more important to be beautiful on the inside as this kind of beauty is eternal.
American poet Mattie JT Stepanek penned these beautiful words: “We are a mosaic of gifts, and each of us has our inner beauty, no matter how we look.”
Unfortunately we live in a superficial world where most of us judge people on appearance. Proverbs 31:30 offers some perspective: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” And a man too, no doubt.
God our Creator does not see us superficially. When the Old Testament prophet Samuel was directed by God to anoint a new king for Israel, he was sent to the household of Jesse. On seeing Jesse’s firstborn son, Eliab, Samuel was sure this was “Jehovah’s anointed” (1 Samuel 16:1–6). “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’”(1 Samuel 16:7).
God warned Samuel against judging by appearance alone. When we judge people by how they look, we may miss out on connecting with quality people who don’t have the physical attributes that society admires. Appearance doesn’t reveal what people are really like or what their true value is.
Fortunately God judges by faith and character, not appearances. And because God can see beyond the outside, only He can accurately judge people. His purpose is developing our inner beauty to be reflected in everything we do and what we are.
If we accept God’s plan for us, our identity will be found in Jesus Christ; anchored in His freedom-giving mercy. We can be children of God with a spiritual inheritance of forgiveness, an intimate relationship with Jesus, and a hope of an eternity enjoying friendship with God. We can have what social media and cosmetic surgery can never hope to provide: unconditional love, intimacy, security, and hope.
[ii] “In Your Face,” Dr Bryan Mendelson, Hardie Grant Books, UK, 2013
[iii] “Cosmetic Surgery,” Andrew Campell, Franklin Watts, Australia, 2008
[iv] “In Your Face,” Dr Bryan Mendelson, Hardie Grant Books, UK, 2013