Written evidence by Professor Rosalind Gill [MISS0060]





2.The author

Rosalind Gill is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at City, University of London, and Deputy Director of the Gender and Sexualities Research Centre. Her PhD (1991) was in Social Psychology, and she has since worked in the disciplines of Media and Communications, Psychology, Sociology and Gender Studies. She helped to establish the LSE’s Gender Institute and was its first tenured academic between 1997 and 2007. She is a world-leading and prize-winning scholar in the fields of gender, media, and appearance – her work has been cited more than 20,000 times, and been translated into multiple languages including Chinese, German,  Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese.  She has published 12 books and more than 100 scholarly articles, and has also been committed to sharing research beyond the academy through accessibly-written articles, contributions to the media, engagement with NGOs, and four documentaries. She has twice been selected to represent the UK as its leading expert on gender, media and new technologies at the UN’s Commission on the Status on Women (in 2003 and 2018).


3. Basis of the evidence.

This submission is based on more than 25 years research concerned with media and embodied identity. Relevant research is found in the book Gender and the Media (Polity, 2007, 2nd edition forthcoming) which won the IGALA prize for the most outstanding book on gender and communication; New Feminities (Palgrave 2011, with Christina Scharff), and, most pertinently, Aesthetic Labour: Beauty politics in neoliberalism (Palgrave 2017, with Ana Elias and Christina Scharff), as well as numerous articles. This submission also draws on recent work on the promotion of body confidence as a new ideal for women: The Confidence Cult(ure) (co-authored with Shani Orgad) is in press with Duke University Press. Finally, the submission is based on brand new research conducted in June 2020 examining how social media use impacts body image. This study is so new it has not yet been published but the results are extremely important thus are being shared here, ahead of publication next month[i].


4. Survey.

In June 2020, 220 young people took part in a detailed survey or in-depth qualitative interviews about media, social media, smartphone use and the body. The research was designed to gather the thoughts, feelings and experiences of as diverse a sample of young people as possible, aged between 18 and 30 and living in Britain.

Other characteristics of the sample (e.g. employment status, parental status) can be found in the full report[ii].


5.In-depth qualitative interviews.

In addition, more than 20 hours of interviews were undertaken with a purposive sample designed to capture the diverse identities and experiences of young women. With one exception who identified as nonbinary, interviewees were all cis women, aged between 18 and 27, and included a doctor, a dancer, an acrobat, a scientist, a trainee vet, a fashion assistant,  a journalist, an  Instagram influencer, several retail workers, and several students. Interviewees came from a range of different regions across the UK. The sample was diverse in terms of class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and included two women who were disabled.


6.Special considerations

Compared with most other research in the field of body image this study stands out for being reflective of the real diversity in society in relation to race and ethnicity, disability, gender identification and sexual orientation.

The research was conducted in June 2020 towards the end of the lockdown period in England, and after a period in which many (but not all) participants had been at home for 10 weeks. COVID and lockdown clearly had an impact on feelings and experiences relating to the body, and both the survey and the interviews were designed to explore this (see below).

The research also coincided with the surge in anti-racist activism after the death in police custody of George Floyd. The Black Lives Matter movement was spontaneously discussed by a large number of participants in the free answers in the survey, as well as being extensively explored in relation to questions about the diversity of bodies in the media in both the survey and the interviews[iii]


7.Social media



8. Young women feel under intense pressure

Interviewees reported pressures to do well at college and University, anxieties about finding – and keeping – a job or jobs, financial worries about getting by, and being in a position to live independently. They also talked about worries about romantic relationships and about friendships. Pressures relating to the body and appearance fit into this wider context of  anxiety.


9.Perfection is compulsory on social media

More than 95% of respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question: ‘do you think people feel under pressure about their body image?’ Women told us that on social media they feel pressure to look attractive (more than 90% agreed); they compare themselves to others (more than 90% agreed); feel under pressure to get likes, nice comments and shares (more than 75% agreed) ; and feel pressure to present a perfect life (70% agreed).  More than 90% of the young women we surveyed said that social media made them feel that ‘other people have more fun than you’ and a similar number said they felt ‘like other people are more successful than you’. Worryingly, more than 75% of the young women we surveyed said that they felt that they will ‘never live up to the images you see’, with around 60% saying that they sometimes felt ‘depressed’ as a result.


10. Living your best life (presenting your best self)



10. Young women feel judged and surveilled and anxious much of the time

Young women feel as if they are under constant surveillance about how they look and how they present themselves more broadly.


11. So many (contradictory) ways to fail: FGW (fear of getting it wrong)

A disturbing finding is the prevalence of severe anxiety among young women about ‘getting it wrong’. This fear ranged over accidentally posting something (e.g. posting to a public account, when you meant to post to your friends), posting a picture that is not perfect enough, posting a picture that is too perfect, posting a picture that does not garner enough likes, or receives negative comments. The public nature of this was experienced as very exposing and potentially humiliating by young women. Being fake, trying too hard, looking like you are attempting to get likes are also all fails as young women negotiate multiple contradictory demands around looking perfect but not too perfect, putting immense thought, care and work into your posts but not being seen to ‘try too hard’, and needing to be authentic but not being able to be real.

Excoriating social anxiety related to posting was interfering with the sleep of numerous participants in this study. They reported that if they posted a picture or story late in the evening (which was understood as the best time to post), they would be consumed by anxiety and would need to check and recheck the platform multiple times before they could go to sleep. A related fear was of having accidentally posted something unintended, with many young women comparing worry about this to the culturally familiar worry about having turned the gas off  – checking multiple times before being able to relax enough to go to sleep. Many women reported that if they woke up in the night they would feel anxious and check their phones to see if their post was being liked - even if it was 4 AM.


12. Appearance pressures are intensifying


13.Appearance pressures are extending

As well as intensifying, appearance pressures are also extending to new times of life (e.g.childhood, pregnancy, new motherhood), and to new areas of the body as the beauty industry and influencers set up new standards relating to thigh gap, bikini bridge, underboob and hot dog legs[vii]. Many young women told us that beauty norms are changing – moving away from thin ideals to a newer ‘slim-thick’ ideal with a big bum and large breasts but a very small waist. This new ‘curvy’ ideal had not led to a relaxation of pressures on young women. Young women also felt overwhelmed by pressures to view themselves from all angles, particularly in the wake of  social media trends for perfecting ‘side view’, ‘jawline’ and ‘back view’. The beauty industry has also moved inside the body with drinks and supplements to promote hair, skin, nails, while wellness trends push towards ‘clean’ eating and being perfect on the inside too.


14. Picture perfect: Filters and photo editing are adding to pressures


15.Other appearance apps

Other appearance apps being used include:


16.COVID, lockdown and body image

The pandemic and associated lockdown has had various effects on young women’s appearance-related experiences.



17.‘Media do not represent me’


18.Body positivity

There is huge enthusiasm among young women for the idea of body positivity – understood as a greater range of representations of women of different shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, religions, styles and appearances.


19. We’re not judging but we want regulation and protection

This generation of young women are clear in the emphasis they place on personal choice and freedom.


20. Concluding remarks

This submission highlights a number of disturbing findings about the nature and extent of the appearance pressure young women experience, and how this translates into significant anxiety and distress. This is having an impact on young women’s mental and physical wellbeing, their sleep, their relationships and many other aspects of their lives – to say nothing of the ‘opportunity costs’ of this intense focus on appearance.

This submission contains a number of new findings about


More research is urgently needed on all these issues in order to gain a fuller understanding.

It seems important to end by highlighting that, although experiencing significant levels of distress, women are not passive dupes in this, but rather operate with ingenuity and sophistication. Many young women spoke about their coping strategies (turning off comments, temporarily deleting the apps) and support networks (mothers, sisters and close friends off line) and also about diverse forms of resistance to the pressures elucidated here- these included supporting people who are doing things differently, posting ‘process rather than outcome pictures, and following and liking posts by other women, other people of colour, other queer and other disabled people. It has not been possible in this submission to break down in detail the ways in which aspects of identity beyond gender shape experience, but these results will be available shortly in the major report.


[i]  Gill,R. (2020) Challenging the perfect picture: Social media, smartphone use and COVID-19. London

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] Bordo, S. (2004). Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Univ of California Press.

[v] This term is borrowed from Ana Elias

[vi] Gill,R. (2020) Challenging the perfect picture: Social media, smartphone use and COVID-19. London


[vii] Orgad,S. & Gill,R. (2020) The Confidence Cult(ure) Duke University Press

[viii] Elias, A.S. and Gill, R., 2016. Beauty surveillance: The digital self-monitoring cultures of neoliberalism. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 21(1), pp.59-77.


[ix] Dosekun, S. (2017). The risky business of postfeminist beauty. In Elias et al (ed) Aesthetic Labour (pp. 167-181). Palgrave Macmillan, London.


September 2020