Is your beach body on social media “Too Good to Be True”?

By Claire Stewart, psychology student, University of Strathclyde

Photo by Ethan Robertson on Unsplash

As summer comes around, more and more photos are posted by women of their beach bodies, but just how honest are these photos? Studies have revealed that online portrayals are not always accurate and deceit can be used to help women appear closer to what is considered to be the ideal beach body – “thin, tanned, young, Caucasian, female and bikinied” (Small, 2007).

This digital practice was examined in a recent study by Kleim, Eckler and Tonner using several focus groups who discussed their thoughts and views of how the beach body is portrayed on social media and offline.

Why do people use deception when they post photos of their beach bodies?

Members of the focus groups emphasised that for a woman to post photos of her beach body, she must have a lot of confidence and believe that her body was already close to perfection. Even with this confidence, deceit can be used for several reasons.

First, it is used  for a woman to make herself look better in the photos and therefore feel better about herself. Participants even went so far as to suggest that it is more important to look good on social media than on the beach. 

In the case of some countries, such as Russia,  posting beach photos is a sign of status. It allows people to show off that they can afford  beach breaks.

There is also a belief that photos posted online have to be perfect and fit what is believed to be the ideal beach body, leading to women working hard to create that perfect image. However this could prevent women who are less body-confident from posting their own photos.

How are photos designed to deceive?

The process of creating beach body photos can involve deceit in several ways, according to participants: from the way the photo is shot to the time it is posted online.

A lot of effort goes into preparing for a photo on the beach.  The chosen outfit must be flattering to the subject’s figure. Facial expressions are mature and attractive – the focus is not to show enjoyment, but to look good! Poses are also carefully considered in order to appear thin and muscular.

Not only is the shot itself carefully orchestrated, but many photos are taken and only the best one is published online. These shots can also be edited – but this was considered acceptable only from celebrities, not from those who were considered friends. Further, only some forms of editing were viewed as appropriate, with filters considered normal but editing used to make the subject appear skinnier was generally criticised.

Participants suggested that edited photos were often unrealistic but despite this awareness of editing practices, photos often still resulted in women feeling bad about their own bodies.

Deception can also occur in the posting of photos. In the case of Instagram, photos are often given tags relating to a healthy lifestyle, such as health or fitness. It was also mentioned that these are excuses which are often used to hide the goal of attaining an “ideal beach body”.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

What can be done to stop the deception?

If deception is as prominent as members of the focus groups suggested and if the impact is as damaging to women’s body confidence, then surely something should be done to stop it. The following were suggested by participants as potential solutions:

  • Educating young people on the dangers of online deception, as well as what unedited bodies look like
  • Creating a “code of conduct” online to encourage less deception and more honest portrayals of women in their photos
  • Having advertising companies feature models with realistic body sizes in their campaigns
  • Researching ways of promoting body positivity

Overall, these focus groups suggested that the beach body as it is portrayed online is often a source of deception, which is potentially damaging for women who create it or view it. But there are solutions which could potentially lessen its negative impact and promote more honest digital portrayals of our real bodies on the beach.

See the full study here.

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