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Beauty Beyond the Screen: The Harmful Impact of Social Media's Unrealistic Beauty Standards

Written by Jose Caballero

Exposure to beauty standards on social media has evolved from being considered inoffensive to deleterious. People have been conditioned to believe that posts on social platforms, like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, are what they should resemble or follow. It has also developed unrealistic beauty standards. Today, social media causes immense pressure to look a certain way. Various cosmetic brands promise to minimize "blemishes" such as stretch marks and cellulite and skin "imperfections” like scars and birthmarks.

Despite these beauty enhancement tools, the ideal body has become increasingly difficult to achieve because of Photoshop, which commonly portrays impossibly flawless bodies. Photoshop innovation has been so sophisticated and widespread during the past 25 years that it's often difficult to know where it’s used, normalizing perfection. Because of these deceiving images, beauty standards should not be as strict because they are subjective. However, social media emphasizes following unrealistic beauty standards, which severely harm adolescents today.

People have developed eating disorders (EDs), mental health issues, and even identity issues by attempting to emulate these unrealistic beauty standards. According to Caitlin McBride (2019), and others, in their research study titled “ The effects of photoshopped images on viewers' physical and mental health", published by the American Journal of Law & Medicine, exposure to “beauty standards” in the media harms people's mental health, ranging from “lowered self-esteem, worsening of mood, and increasing accessibility of negative thoughts to increases in EDs risk factors” such as body dissatisfaction and internalization of the thin-ideal for beauty. Thus, exposure to unrealistic beauty standards correlates with an increased risk for eating disorders, which affect millions of Americans across all genders, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic statuses. Additionally, this harmful emulation is emphasized when McBride states that digitally altered Instagram "selfies" lowered body satisfaction, particularly among those who most likely engaged in social comparison. Young girls worldwide are being harmed by these emphasized standards. Adolescence is a crucial period in which girls are maturing and experiencing body changes. Therefore, teenagers are highly affected by social media beauty standards, commonly edited with Photoshop. For the sake of these girls' mental and physical health, it is critical for beauty standards to become realistic. Moreover, according to Demetra: Food, Nutrition & Health (2018), society defines the norms for humans to create a “social identity.” Individuals with different features are often stigmatized; therefore, their social identities are hurt by any attribute that challenges society’s 'normality.' Nowadays, folks follow what they see on social media like Instagram or Facebook. This trend becomes an undesired social, moral, and identity mark that discourages users if they do not fit the current physical appearance standards. Certainly, our society has normalized these extreme standards, causing people severe mental distress.

Consistent appearance comparison, as well as social appearance anxiety, intensify the cognitive internalization of thin-ideal standards and the pressure for unattainable beauty standards. Talbot et al. (2017) reported that social media users are exposed to countless “thin-idealized female bodies” on their feed of celebrities, people within their social network, and people they do not know. Thus, social media, with its constant availability for interaction and content creation, has increased the exposure that young women have to attain “certain body ideals.” Instagram is one of the most used social platforms today, where people publicly share their lifestyle, routines, and beauty blogs; essentially, “influencers” are making beauty standards part of their lives. As Talbot et al. found, such exposure leads to body comparison, body dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety for those who seek to follow what they see on social media. Arguably, social media influencers only display what they want others to see; if they solely post about workouts and eating healthy, users are harmfully deceived.Yang et al. published a study on the relations between social media and smartphone use to body esteem and what underlies them. They state that adolescents compare their negative qualities to the ideal and perceive themselves as not attractive enough. In turn, this develops a fear of being judged by others. “Comparison-inducing  social  media”  has been shown to decrease self-esteem and self-perceived physical attractiveness, supporting the link between appearance comparison and  social  appearance anxiety, which is the fear of negative body-related evaluation by others. Social media users especially tend to believe everything they see on platforms is real. They falsely believe everyone must have a perfect body or look attractive 24/7. Therefore, adolescents who have internalized thin ideals through frequent consumption of appearance-related  media content would likely view thin bodies as desirable targets.

Viewed differently, social media could have positive effects on beauty standards. Many people may think that social platforms are used for self-expression and empowerment.  After all, people  are  being much more experimental; they are doing beauty-related activities on their terms and not for anyone else's approval. Kennedy Ümit (2016) published a study about NikkieTutorials, a famous beauty YouTuber. Ümit demonstrates how people are using YouTube as a “transformative tool” to present their identity online using makeup. Through their online transformation, members of the movement engage in a process of developing their identity and form communities that share a love of makeup. Most importantly, they use their platforms to advocate for free beauty expression, the notion that people have beauty no matter what they choose to do with themselves. By embodying Nikkie’s message to rid makeup shaming and transform the self into the desired identity, the movement turns the meaning of beauty around. Nikkie uses makeup as a transformative tool but does not emphasize its necessity to look and feel beautiful. Moreover, she influences millions of viewers to be more comfortable in loving and being true to themselves. Thus, platforms like YouTube may seem ideal for self-expression and empowerment. But in reality, this industry is not always genuine with its audience. Many forget that beauty influencers are businesspeople; they are not always genuine in the products they promote. Luong (2019) published a study about hidden advertisements and sponsorships in the world of beauty influencers. Luxury cosmetics brands commonly send beauty gurus free makeup and offer paid brand trips, causing the Youtuber to give positive reviews of the products to maintain a relationship with that brand. Furthermore, in a survey, 60 percent of beauty consumers reported that they were influenced by social media or blog reviews while shopping. Although social media attempts to challenge beauty standards, consumers cannot forget that it’s more complex and money-driven than it seems. When it comes to highly influential YouTubers, viewers should be wary of the products promoted, especially when they are unrealistically affordable. This is where viewers should consider looking into other beauty influencers who may promote more genuine products.

Beauty standards have harmed people's physical and mental health.  Social media significantly affects how people are being influenced by superficial beauty ideals, and people often adopt what they see on platforms. The paradigm of being “perfect" still cannot change until we begin correcting the misinterpretation of beauty not just in social media, but also in our culture, because we make these ideals a reality. Evidently, beauty ideals have spread over generations; the idea of the "perfect body and face" is subjective and ultimately, researchers emphasize that beauty standards are constantly changing and everyone has beauty. Therefore, people must be open to new perspectives and understand that the "perfect" beauty look is impossible to achieve. With these improvements, we can progress into a society where all beauty is celebrated and adolescents are not as harmed.



Kennedy, U. (2016). Exploring YouTube as a transformative tool in The power of makeup movement. M/C Journal, Vol 19.

Luong, A. (2020). All that glitters is gold: The regulation of hidden advertisements and

Undisclosed Sponsorships in the World of Beauty Social Media Influencers. William &

Mary Business Law Review, Vol 11.

McBride, C. (2019). Digital manipulation of images of models' appearance in advertising:

strategies for action through law and corporate social responsibility incentives to protect

public health. American Journal of Law & Medicine, Vol 45.

Sousa Silva, A. (2018). Image-discursive construction of body beauty in social media: Effects on followers' body and eating perceptions. Demetra: Food, Nutrition & Health, Vol 13.

Talbot, C. (2017). A content analysis of fitspiration and bone-spiration imagery on

social media.  Journal of Eating Disorders, Vol. 5.

Yang, H. (2020). Effects of Social Media and Smartphone use on body esteem in female

adolescents: Testing a cognitive and affective model.MDPI AG, Vol 7.

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