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The Role of Instagram in Body Image and Wellbeing

 words by Natasza Biernacka

Instagram & Body Image by Natasza Biernacka for Overdressed Online

Nowadays, social media is a constant in our lives. In our online realities, we can present who we are and whom we want to be to the world. The way we look reflects our inner selves, our appearance a tool to express our identities. Yet with Instagram’s focus on photos and selfies, social comparison can have a devastating effect on body image, and subsequently wellbeing. The majority of Instagram users are young women, and research shows that its effect on their wellbeing can be detrimental: a 2019 study found that in the case of young women, more frequent use of Instagram positively correlates with depressive symptoms, lowered self-esteem, appearance anxiety, and body dissatisfaction (1). We need to ask ourselves: what role does Instagram play in young women’s wellbeing? And is it possible to use the platform to protect young women’s body image, to improve wellbeing rather than harm it?

(1) Mary Sherlock and Danielle L. Wagstaff, “Exploring the relationship between frequency of Instagram use, exposure to idealized images, and psychological well-being in women,” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8, no. 4 (2019): 482–490.

Wellbeing is a multidimensional concept. In the conversation about Instagram and body image, we can narrow down its most relevant aspects to subjective and social wellbeing. Subjective wellbeing concerns itself with our emotional welfare. It is a concept developed by Ed Diener, measuring how positive we feel about our own lives (2). Social wellbeing, on the other hand, is a measure of how integrated and accepted we feel in society, theorised by Cory L. M. Keyes (3). Both aspects of wellbeing are important to monitor in young Instagram users, as studies have reported decreased moods, sustained negative affect, and increased importance of social interaction with peers in adolescence (4).

One of the many indicators of subjective wellbeing is self-esteem. Indeed, people with lower self-esteem are more likely to experience negative emotions (5). Interestingly, body image is an essential component of self-esteem (6). Instagram’s focus on sharing photos and selfies can lead to body comparison, and affect users’ satisfaction with their own bodies; it makes social comparison all too easy. Currently, one of the trending themes on the platform is #fitspiration images that promote a homogeneous body type labelled “healthy”.

2 Ed Diener, “Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index,” American Psychologist 55, no. 1 (2000): 34–43.

3 Cory L. M. Keyes, “Social well-being,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 61 no. 2 (1998) 121–140.

4 Sally Weinstein, Robin Mermelstein, Benjamin Hankin, Donald Hedeker, and Brian Flay, “Longitudinal Patterns of Daily Affect and Global Mood During Adolescence,” Journal of research on adolescence 17, no. 3 (2007): 587–600.

5 Mark R. Leary and Geoff MacDonald, “Individual differences in self-esteem: A review and theoretical integration,” in Handbook of self and identity, ed. by Mark R. Leary and June Price Tangney (New York: Guilford Press, 2003), 401–418. 

6 Joel K. Thompson and Rick M. Gardner, “Measuring Body Image Attitudes Among Adolescents and Adults,” in Body Image: A Handbook of Theory, Research and Clinical Practice, ed. by Thomas F. Cash and Thomas Pruzinsky (New York: Guilford Press, 2002): 142–153.

The intention of #fitspiration is to motivate women to pursue positive changes and work towards health goals through the visual inspiration of desirable bodies and lifestyles. Instead, research led by Leah Boepple suggests that the trend often contains guilt-inducing messages about weight and body fat, and emphasises dieting and restrictive eating (7). The relationship between adolescent girls and their body image has recently become a significant issue in our society, sadly leading more often than ever before to depression, social anxiety and eating disorders (8).

In Boepple’s study, the use of Instagram filled with idealised body content resulted in a negative effect on women's appearance-related concerns and beliefs. Similarly, another study found that the effect of viewing thin-ideal images on Instagram and investing in the amount of likes such images get is often damaging to young women's psychological and social wellbeing, as well as their satisfaction with their body image (9). Content presenting idealised bodies on the platform can reinforce social ideals of beauty and hurt young women's perception of themselves.

Why does Instagram have such an impact? Researchers have suggested that Instagram may be more detrimental to women's body image than other social networking sites with more varied content because Instagram is an image-based platform (10).

(7) Leah Boepple, Rheanna N. Ata, Ruba Rum, and Joel K. Thompson, “Strong is the new skinny: A content analysis of fitspiration websites. Body Image,” Body Image 17 (2016): 132–135.

(8) Heather R. Gallivan, “Teens, social media and body image,” (Presentation, Park Nicollet Melrose Center, 2014).

(9) Marika Tiggemann, Susannah Hayden, Zoe Brown, and Jolanda Veldhuis, “The effect of Instagram “likes” on women’s social comparison and body dissatisfaction,” Body Image 26 (2018): 90–97.

(10) Jasmine Fardouly and Lenny R. Vartanian, “Social media and body image concerns: current research and future directions,” Current Opinion in Psychology 9 (2016): 1–5.

Instagram & Body Image by Natasza Biernacka for Overdressed Online

Through Instagram's visual presentation of ourselves, our peers and the world, we often make sense of our online reality via the process of narrative transportation. We can lose ourselves in the stories that other people create, and allow the virtual world evoked by these narratives to mould our own beliefs.

In a 2017 paper, Seyfi and Soydaş theorised how stories told on Instagram through pictures create visual narratives with symbols, rituals, heroes and values for users to get lost in and shape identities around (11). Identifying with these narratives can influence how we process information about our self-worth, creating a set of beliefs about who we are. In an environment that values appearance as much as Instagram does, self-worth can become appearance-contingent (12). If we judge our worth based on how good we look compared to others, we create a narrative about ourselves that is centered around our appearance. Our wellbeing becomes tied up with our body image. We need to ask ourselves whether these narratives and the beliefs implicit in them are ultimately harmful or helpful to our self-perception and wellbeing.

(11) Murat Seyfi and Ayda Uzunçarşılı Soydaş, “Instagram Stories From the Perspective of Narrative Transportation Theory,” The Turkish Online Journal of Design, Art and Communication 7, no. 1 (2017): 47–60.

(12) Katherine E. Adams, James M. Tyler, Rachel Calogero, and Jennifer Lee, “Exploring the relationship between appearance-contingent self-worth and self-esteem: The roles of self-objectification and appearance anxiety,” Body Image 23 (2017): 176–182.

Through Instagram's visual presentation of ourselves, our peers and the world, we often make sense of our online reality via the process of narrative transportation.

Perhaps mindfully curating positive narratives in our online world could alter our beliefs about our body image for the better. The positive psychology of acceptance and its aim to facilitate social wellbeing are highly applicable to untangling our complicated relationship with Instagram and body image concerns (13). Bronfenbrenner's experimental ecology theory states that the microsystem – our most immediate social setting such as family or work, and now social media – has a substantial impact on our wellbeing (14).

Therefore, microsettings, when made as beneficial to wellbeing as possible, could promote healthy behaviour and values. In recent years, we have observed the body positivity movement (#BoPo) on Instagram become popular. It is a social movement that is deeply rooted in the belief that all human beings should experience positive body image no matter what body type. Most importantly, it offers young women a choice of body image content to view on their microsetting on Instagram. As an alternative to #fitspo, #BoPo can enhance women's wellbeing both subjectively and socially through belonging to a robust and empowering group of women who value acceptance of all body types, emphasising people’s body assets rather than dwelling on imperfections (15).

A number of studies have investigated how this kind of self-compassion offers a novel approach to attenuating the negative impact of media (16). Consciously engaging in self-kindness instead of self-criticism plays a protective role in women's body image concerns, ultimately encouraging self-acceptance. The effects of body positivity on subjective and social wellbeing are intertwined. The core of developing positive relationships with other members of society lies with the ability and willingness to accept others as they are. All of us are different and that it is okay. And by appreciating the uniqueness of each person, we in turn incorporate love and respect for our own bodies.

Instagram provides a platform for an identity search, a setting for young women to navigate how they fit into their social world. Despite the risks of absorbing harmful narratives about unrealistic beauty ideals, by self-regulating their online realities, young women can instead curate content that sparks positive emotions towards themselves and their bodies at a time in their lives when wellbeing can be fragile. Moreover, all of us can learn to tell more positive stories about our bodies both on- and offline, fostering an appreciation for the full spectrum of human beauty.

(13) Paul T. P. Wong, “Acceptance & Well-being: A Meaning-Management Perspective,” (Presentation, The Australian Positive Psychology Conference, 2012). 

(14) Urie Bronfenbrenner, “Toward an experimental ecology of human development,” American Psychologist 32, no. 7 (1977): 513–531.

(15) Nichole Wood-Barcalow, Tracy L. Tylka, and Casy L. Augustus-Horvath, “‘But I Like My Body’: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women,” Body Image 7, no. 2 (2010): 106-16.

(16) Amy Slater, Neesha Varsani, and Phillippa C. Diedrichs, “#fitspo or #loveyourself? The impact of fitspiration and self-compassion Instagram images on women’s body image, self-compassion, and mood,” Body Image 22 (2017): 87–96.

Kristin D. Neff, “The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion,” Self and Identity, 2, no. 3 (2003): 223–250.

Allison C. Kelly, Kiruthiha Vimalakanthan, and Kathryn E. Miller, “Self-compassion moderates the relationship between body mass index and both eating disorder pathology and body image flexibility,” Body Image, 11 (2014): 446–453.

2020 assignment in the Fashion & Wellbeing module Year 2 of BS(c) Psychology of Fashion, University of the Arts London. Supervised by Ameerah Khadaroo, PhD


Photography & Styling
Natasza Biernacka

Natalia Samonek

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