Written evidence submitted by Dr Emily Newman, Dr Helen Sharpe and Dr Fiona Duffy, Eating Disorders and Behaviours Research Group, Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Edinburgh (MISS0022)


1. The respondents

The authors are lecturers in Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Edinburgh. Our Eating Disorders and Behaviours research group looks at risk factors for disordered eating attitudes and behaviours and body image, and interventions. We specialise in interpersonal therapy for individuals with eating disorders, body image interventions in young people, and the effect of social media on body image and eating.


For this call, we are submitting evidence relating to (1) the impact of advertising and social media on body image, and (2) examples of adverts and campaigns that have impacted people’s body image positively and negatively. All evidence relates to recently conducted work by our group that is not yet published.


2. The impact of advertising and social media on body image

Dr Emily Newman and her team have conducted a series of studies exploring the impact of viewing different types of social media content on body image. The development of poor body image is complex, and while social media has a contributing factor, as detailed below, it is important that we view this within a bigger picture e.g. one of a number of mechanisms to broadcast societies unrealistic body image ideals.  We know that young people are at higher risk of body dissatisfaction if they have experience appearance based teasing or bullying, are within peer groups or families that frequently discuss weight, shape and diets or participate in “fat talk” and as a result of our societal ideals, being overweight is a risk factor for poor body image.


The key findings of these studies are summarised below.


2.1. Fitspiration and thinspiration

Fitspiration (an amalgamation of fit and inspiration) content is a popular hashtag on social media, and purportedly promotes a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise. This contrasts with thinspiration (amalgamation of thin and inspiration) content, which explicitly promotes thinness to viewers. Nevertheless, fitspiration imagery tends to present a particular aspirational body type, thin and muscular, in both men and women. It also arguably depicts parts of the body in an objectified way, rather than promote fitness as a health outcome.


In this series of studies, we exposed participants to fitspiration, thinspiration and/or neutral images and explored the impact of each on body image and related outcomes. Key findings are:



More detailed methods for these studies are provided below:


Study 1. Welch, Zompopoulou and Newman, unpublished data

We directly compared short-term exposure to fitspiration and thinspiration imagery, taken from Instagram, in 255 young women (18 to 30 years). Women were randomised into one of three image groups based on Instagram hashtags: fitspiration, thinspiration or travel (a neutral control). Results showed that thinspiration had a negative impact on young women’s mood and a positive impact on their body satisfaction. In contrast, fitspiration had a negative impact on body satisfaction. The effect on body image was partly mediated through comparisons with the women depicted in the images. This suggests that thinspiration is more damaging to mood, while fitspiration is more damaging to body image in women. Furthermore, the findings suggest that, in a general population sample, women aspire to look thin and muscular as opposed to very thin, because fitspiration had a negative impact and thinspiration a positive impact on body image in the sample.


Study 2. Zard, Vasiliadou and Newman, unpublished data

In this study, we randomly allocated 158 men aged 18 to 30 years to a set of either fitspiration or travel images, where images were taken from Instagram. The outcomes measured were self-esteem, mood and body dissatisfaction. In this study, there was no difference between the fitspiration or control travel image groups in self-esteem, mood, or body dissatisfaction after being exposed to the content.


Study 3. Fort Alonso and Newman, unpublished data

We compared the effect of exposure to fitspiration imagery from Instagram in 101 men, aged 18 to 25 years, who were either physically active or not. The outcomes measured were self-esteem and muscle satisfaction. The results indicated that for non-active young men, exposure to fitspiration had a negative effect on their self-esteem and muscle satisfaction. In physically active young men, there was no significant change in self-esteem and muscle satisfaction after exposure to fitspiration. These findings indicate that there may be a negative impact of exposure to fitspiration images on muscle body image specifically in those young men who are not physically active, who are likely to be lower in muscle mass.


Study 4. Clayton, Casey and Newman, unpublished data

Finally, we have conducted two studies that have looked at whether there is a differential effect of viewing fitspiration images where the people shown are actively engaged in exercise, versus images where the people depicted are only posed in exercise clothing. In the first of these studies, we randomly allocated 231 young women aged, 18 to 30 years, to one of three image conditions: posed fitspiration, active fitspiration, or neutral travel imagery. All images were sourced from Instagram and we measured body dissatisfaction as the outcome variable. The results showed that in both fitspiration imagery groups, there was an increase in body dissatisfaction after image exposure, while no effect on body dissatisfaction was found in the control condition. In other words, both posed and active fitspiration images seemed to have a negative impact on the young women’s body image.


Study 5. Johnston, Purves, McPhail, Dunlop and Newman; unpublished data

In this study, the effect of posed versus active fitspiration images was explored in men as well as women. There were 111 women and 55 men in the sample, aged between 18 and 28 years, and we measured body satisfaction and self-esteem. Participants were randomly allocated to view either active or posed fitspiration images from Instagram. In both male and female participants, there was a decrease in body satisfaction and self-esteem after exposure to the fitspiration images. There was also a greater decrease in body satisfaction after viewing the active images than the posed images. This study indicated that active fitspiration images have more of a negative impact on body image, but this was not consistent with the results of Study 4.


2.2 Body positive advertising imagery

In the last few years, many UK high street brands have notably increased diversity in models shown in their advertising, in terms of clothing size and visible difference. The more that fashion or cosmetics brands show diversity in people wearing or using their products, the more normalised this will become to the viewer, and perceived as less tokenistic. Nevertheless, it is also of concern that brands make a profit and that advertising strategies are also successful in this respect. As social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram have the facility for users to buy products via the app, and serve as a forum for influencers to promote products to followers, the distinction between social media and advertising is a blurred one.


We have conducted two experimental studies that have investigated the impact of viewing more ‘body positive’ advertising images. Our key findings are:



Study 6. Khandelwal, Irving and Newman, unpublished data

In this study, we looked at the impact of short-term exposure to either advertising campaigns featuring thin models, or campaign images with women of various sizes (including images from the Aerie ‘real’ campaign). We focused on advertising for lingerie and swimwear, where the model’s body is very visible and used advertising campaign images from Instagram. Our participants were 80 young women, aged 18 to 25, who were randomly assigned into either the thin or non-thin advert condition, and measured self-esteem and body image pre and post exposure to the images. We found that exposure to the thin images led to a decrease in self-esteem and more negative body image, while exposure to the non-thin images led to an increase in both self-esteem and a more positive body image. This suggests that viewing thin models has a negative impact on women, while, interestingly, viewing models of different sizes has a positive impact on women’s self-esteem and body image.


Study 7. Xu and Newman, unpublished data

In this study, we looked at the impact of different messages about women in cosmetics advertising. These different messages were grouped as: objectifying (the woman was shown as a sexual object), self-objectifying (the woman was shown as being dissatisfied with, and improving, her own appearance) and empowerment (the woman was shown in a non-objectified way, and self-worth emphasised, e.g. being confident in a work situation). We tested the effects viewing each of the message types on mood, self-esteem and body image in 116 Chinese women, aged 18 to 35, who were randomly assigned to one of these three conditions. Additionally, we asked participants to rate how much they liked each advertisement shown. We found no effect of the advertisement image condition on self-esteem or mood; however, there was a significant effect of condition on body image where participants in the empowerment condition had more positive body image than those in the other conditions, and showed a more positive body image score after viewing these adverts. Participants in the empowerment condition also reported that they liked the adverts more than did participants in the objectification conditions. Therefore, our results indicate that women’s body image is improved by empowering messages in cosmetics advertising.


Please note that in all the experimental studies described above, when we measured self-esteem, body image, body satisfaction or mood, we used state measures, which ask participants to rate how they are feeling at this moment and are therefore sensitive to change after a short term exposure to social media or advertising content.


All reported effects are statistically significant.



3. Resources: BIAS: An interactive workshop on body image and social media for schools and youth groups

In 2019, our research group worked in collaboration with NHS Lothian CAMHS to work with young people via National Lottery Funding to understand the impact of social media on body image and jointly develop, pilot, evaluate and launch free workshop material focused around the influence of social media on body image.


Three focus groups were run with a range of young people to explore areas of concern associated with body image and social media, and to guide the content and delivery of future workshops.  Participants discussed the types of social media they use and were able to acknowledge both positive and negative impact of social media on body image including the detrimental impact of “scrolling” for long periods of time, viewing filtered images, experiencing “trolling” from people they knew and strangers or seeing this happen to others, including comments about peoples appearance.  The groups discussed an awareness of body image standards in our culture alongside confusion and anxiety over interaction on social media, including whether social media comments were genuine or not, not always knowing whether images were edited, and potential “negative reactions” to posts they may make e.g. direct comments or lack of acknowledgment/likes. This group of young people also described what they perceived to be “boosts” to their body image from likes and comments from others and interestingly struggled to consider or reflect on how this body image focused interaction may also be detrimental.


Older pupils were able to reflect on their social media use when they were younger and noticed unwritten social media rules, including expectations of different types of posts between genders, social media platforms, and when and how to post to make sure you gained the most acknowledgment.


“Each social media has a different quality of photo that you can put on. Snapchats kind of goofy photos, Instagram you’ve got to look good and Facebook if you still use it is kind of like for your parents. That’s for old photos- like where you keep your photos”


The group participants reflected that they now followed more celebrities on social media, whereas previously it was just friends, and noticed that “reality celebrities” were more present now. They acknowledged that this is a group of individuals who can be very body image focused, many of which have had plastic surgery, and acknowledged that they supported excessive “body image ideals” which were difficult to meet. The group felt that there is now “more pressure” to post “perfect” photos, otherwise you would be made fun off, but that brands who advertise on social media are now more inclusive of different body shapes and types.


When designing the workshop, we asked older pupils what would be helpful to include in workshop on social media and body image they highlighted that:


Workshop materials and facilitation notes were developed in partnership with young people, are free to download and use, and are intended to be used within schools and youth groups with an older peer and adult group leader. Initial pilot data with 77 young people indicated that 96% (n=69) said they would recommend the workshop to a friend “a little” (23%), “quite a bit” (39%) to “a lot” (30%); 94% (n=71) stated they had learned something “a little” (38%), “quite a bit” (42%) to “a lot” (11%)


These materials can be downloaded from: https://services.nhslothian.scot/camhs/Resources/Documents/BIAS%20Manual%20v6.pdf



4. Regulation

Two members of the research group (Duffy, Sharpe) were recently part of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Good Body Image, co-chaired by the Mental Health Foundation and BEAT.  Within this document there is significant section on regulation and social media, and as a research group we would endorse these recommendations. 



June 2020