Body Image and Social Media

Body Image

This week we wanted to look at body image issues for both young men and young women and synthesize some of the resources out there on the topic.

We should begin by acknowledging the rather obvious fact that both boys and girls, men and women struggle with body image. As current research has shown, mass media and social media play a key role in shaping what children and young adults believe is both the desired and attainable male or female form. For young men, they often feel scrawny and seek to build muscle by maintaining a rigorous workout schedule and diet plan, while supplementing with steroids. For young women, rather than bulking up, the goal is to slim down by using diet products including laxatives.

In an article for the New York Times, Perri Klass references the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS) which surveyed children age 9 to 14 periodically over the years as they grew up. The study found that by the age of 23 to 25, 10.5% of women surveyed had reported using laxatives to aid in weight loss over the past year. Similarly, 12% of men in the study reported using muscle building products. Because the use of these products increase with age, the study points to the “need for early intervention”. For example, parents should speak to their children about body image and the kinds of images they see on social media from a young age. By asking, “What do you think of that picture?” or “Who is that picture for?”, parents can help their children to be critical consumers not only of the broader media, but also of friends’ images on social media.

Lisa Damour explains that questions like these are particularly important given the widespread use of social media platforms like Instagram where teens may post “carefully crafted bikini shots” year round. For her, it’s not so much that young girls are comparing themselves to Victoria Secret models, it’s that they are comparing their bodies to those of their friends and acquaintances. Damour explains that in practice, this behavior is a “tax on their concentration”. Findings from a study conducted in 1998 appear to corroborate this point. Researches put both male and female undergraduates in their own dressing room with a mirror and either sweaters or swimsuits in various sizes. The participants were told to put on their garments and wear them around the dressing room awhile before filling out a fake form to evaluate the apparel. While they were waiting, they were given a maths test to use their productively. The researchers found that the female students wearing sweaters performed much better than their swimsuit-wearing female counterparts, while male students performed the same whether in a swimsuit or sweater. A second study swapped the maths test for an exam that sought to determine “the capacity for focused attention” and still the results held. Their conclusion?

In short, when women are prompted to reflect on their physical appearance, they seem to lose intellectual focus.

While men may not suffer a loss of concentration, Scott Griffiths argues body image and the portrayal of the male figure in the media (and social media) is still taking a calculable toll men. Why? Griffiths explains,

Boys, just like girls, are influenced by the images they see… As society places increasing value on those aspects of physical appearance that can be modified through diet and exercise, whether it’s body fat or muscle or some new combination thereof, we create the environment in which eating disorders can flourish.

Females want to get skinnier. Males want get bigger. So many young men and adults turn to muscle builders like anabolic steroids to try and achieve the kind of increased muscularity they see in movies, on models, in social media. But like anorexia or any other eating disorder, Griffiths explains “muscle dysmorphia” is a real mental disorder where individuals who suffer spend an average of 5.5+ hours per day thinking about their muscles and body size. They might protect their diet and training schedule by turning down important social occasions. Feelings of insecurity or shame about their body may take over completely. And perhaps most troubling, fully half of those with muscle dysmorphia have reported attempting to commit suicide at least once.

For both male and female children, it is imperative that parents set an example by celebrating their children not for what they look like, but for what they can do and achieve. Be similarly critical of the objectification of women in the media and the characterization of men as stoic and uncaring about their appearance.

For Jessi Kneeland, it was the constant objectification and sexualization of her body by men that lead her to associate her body with danger. After she was sexually assaulted twice at the age of 7 and 9, endured sexually charged “compliments” like, “you’re jail bait” at the age of 11, and suffered through an unhealthy relationship as a teen, Kneeland explains that she simply saw herself as “the kind of girl you violate”. Which is why she argues:

Negative body image isn’t just about body, it’s about personal and cultural factors, it’s about shame or the feeling that there is something wrong with us.

While social media may serve to reinforce these feelings in many ways, social media itself has given rise to the body positive community which preaches self love and advocates for feeling proud of and secure in you body. While Kneeland admits this is a step in the right direction, body positivity doesn’t offer a lasting solution for someone with a negative self image. Why? Because according to her, it’s not about how skinny you or how muscular you want to be. The physical “flaws” that we choose to obsess over are really masking something much deeper. Perhaps it’s the fear of being judged or made fun of. Maybe it’s the fear of being unloved and ignored.

The problem isn’t with our bodies. It is with the stories we believe about ourselves that we believe our bodies are broadcasting to the world.”

Social media allows children and adults alike to create content and share it with the masses. Photo sharing platforms in particular, have a direct influence on our perception of ourselves and our bodies. They invite us to make comparisons, to critique, to judge, to fall prey to photoshopped and perfected images. In some cases, more positively, they may invite us to celebrate what we most cherish about ourselves. Regardless, it is our responsibility to consume media critically and to assist children in doing the same. Moreover, as Kneeland reminds us, our self-image is multidimensional, the product of more than just unrealistic fashion adverts. We must also strive to understand the emotions and thoughts and experiences from which the insecurity and negative body image originates.




What is your story?

A LOT of attention has been paid to sexual harassment as of late. We have heard about extensive sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual harassment on college campuses, sexual harassment perpetrated by adults against children.

Less discussed is the growing issue of sexual harassment among children or peer-on-peer sexual harassment as we have termed it.

The aim of the #RAPstories Campaign is to promote awareness of peer-on-peer sexual harassment in schools, at parties, in sports or while abroad. We want young people to be able to define, identify and respond with confidence to sexual harassment.

Rather than be bystanders, we want to empower young people to #SpreadRespect by speaking out. We want to share your #RAPstories.

But first, let’s define sexual harassment.

According to Citizens Advice, sexual harassment is unwanted behavior of a sexual nature which:

  • violates your dignity
  • makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • creates a hostile or offensive environment

Sexual harassment can be nonphysical:

  • sexual comments or jokes, gestures or requests for sexual acts
  • displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
  • sending texts or emails with unwanted sexual content
  • spreading sexual rumors about someone

Sexual harassment can also, of course, be physical:

  • Unwanted touching including hugging, kissing and other unwanted sexual advances

If you have personally experienced this kind of behavior, or have witnessed the sexual harassment of one or more of your peers, we want to hear from you.

We want to know what sexual harassment looks like to you. 

Maybe you heard a rape joke at school that made you uncomfortable. Maybe you helped spread a sexual rumor about someone. Maybe your friend showed your an inappropriate photo of someone at school.

How did it make you feel? What did you do about? If you could go back in time, would you respond differently now?

Worried about speaking up? 

Don’t be. When you email us at or DM us on our facebook or instagram pages, we will ask you whether you would like us to share your story on our social media platforms. You can choose to share your story anonymously or with your first name and age attached. Our aim is simply to spread awareness about peer-on-peer sexual harassment and you can help us do that.

Use the hashtags #RAPstories and #SpreadRespect to help us have a conversation about peer-on-peer sexual harassment.

Sexting and Consent: Takeaways from Amy Hasinoff’s TEDx Talk

Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor of communication and author of Sexting Panic, has been researching sexting since 2008. She defines sexting as “using any form of digital communication (via phone, app, email, etc.) to send a sexual image or text message to another person.”

In her TEDx talk about sexting and consent, she points to findings by a group of researchers at Deacon University in Australia. They compiled results from an array of studies on the rates of sexting among young adults and found that over 50% engage in sexting. Amy explains that while media coverage on sexting is largely negative, there is a reason to be hopeful.

When she googled “sex tips”, Amy found that only 5% of the first page articles talked about consent. When she googled “sexting tips”, however, 33% of first page articles discussed the importance of consent when sending sexts. For example, 1/3 of the sites she examined warned of the consequences of sending an unwanted sext, implying that those who are looking to send an image or text message with sexual content need to make sure the other party is a willing participant. She highlights the fact that these kind of warnings were NOT present in the general sex advice articles and argues that this  difference suggests we are headed in the right direction when talking about consent via sexting.

However, she does acknowledge some failures of the sexting tips articles. Amy notes in particular that, “they don’t talk about the serious trauma and harm of distributing someone’s private image without their permission.”

Nonetheless, she believes digital communication can teach us some important lessons about consent. Whereas general sex advice assumes that consent is easy to figure out without speaking openly about it, digital communications doesn’t allow for that kind of inference. It eliminates body language cues and thus, demands a conversation to determine consent. In other words, consent must be explicit. You DO have to talk about it.

And the importance of getting explicit consent must extend beyond the realm of sexting into conversations about sex in general. Amy explains, “rape is not a problem of miscommunication… We have to teach everyone including potential rapists that they have to make sure they have negotiated a meaningful yes with their partner.” Before sex. Before sexting. Consent must be made clear.

Consent (1)

Watch her full TEDx talk here.


26 September 2017


Last week we visited St Mary’s Ascot school to deliver a talk about The Big Leap, the challenging transition between secondary school and what comes next; university, a gap year or work. As we walked into the Rose Theatre, we were greeted by a group of bright and engaged young women who participated in the talk and stayed around afterwards to ask questions.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the session was a conversation we shared with two students who had set up a Feminist society at their school. They had some burning questions.  “How do you get students to engage with Feminism these days?”, “Some of our friends don’t care about Feminism, how can we get people to understand how important it is?”  I asked them if Feminism was ever a subject of conversation within the school’s gates. “Do you have lessons about Feminism?” “Are you encouraged to be Feminists?”  “No”, “No,” and ‘No” were their replies.

This is a problem in schools. Feminism is something we don’t bother talking about. In fact, my own education is a good example of this. I came across the “concept” of Feminism at university. It was a dark, murky subject that I knew next to nothing about. It seems shameful to admit it now, but that’s the truth.  Suddenly there it was: Feminism. It was something academic, something to be studied theoretically as part of your degree but still not something to be practiced or talked about in daily life.

Slowly, I began to engage in conversations about Feminism. Some of the early conversations were highly frustrating. I spoke with some women who were ‘strong’ Feminists, some women who believed Feminism was outdated and a majority of our male counterparts who dismissed the concept entirely. When I think about these conversations now, I feel infuriated.  To not ‘believe’ in Feminism? What does that even mean? Is Feminism a kind of cult or religion?  Don’t see the point? In what? Equality? Women?  Over the course of university, as I drifted in and out of different circles, I met people who challenged and opened my perception of Feminism. Feminism was something I could talk about regularly with boyfriends and girlfriends. It was no longer a mystery, a taboo topic shrouded in academia.

Both sexes are guilty of turning a blind eye to Feminism. One of the main problems: the subject is not taught addressed or references at all in schools. A lot of people still associate feminism with lesbians, doc martens, hairy armpits and bra burning era. If we were all taught- at an early age- that Feminism means equality pure and simple. If we were taught that Feminism leads to both men and women leading statistically happier, more prosperous lives. If we were taught that Feminism is working towards a world that is free of gender stereotypes (again for both men and women) then people might begin to think differently about it.

It makes no sense to live in a world where boys and girls are embarrassed to associate with Feminism. Men and women in the 1960s didn’t fight for gender equality just so that we could go back to living in silence and accepting ‘Love Island’ gender narratives. It makes no sense to ignore equality. If sexism, inequality and misogyny didn’t exist, maybe we could overlook the shocking shortsightedness of an education system that doesn’t think Feminism is a relevant thing to be talking about. But sadly, they do exist and we can’t overlook it.

As the conversation continued, the two St Mary’s students became more and more passionate. They talked about setting up a Feminist Festival, inviting speakers into the school and giving talks to some of the younger years. I was impressed by their energy and zeal. It’s important that we start talking to our students about equality, stereotypes and gender narratives from a young age. Talking about Feminism should be more commonplace. The subject of equality and how we work towards it should be on everybody’s lips. In fact, I would really like for the next generation not to get to university and find themselves talking about feminism for the first time. By the time students hit university they’re 18+ and a lot of their attitudes, insecurities and behaviors are already set. These discussions and debates need to be happening from an earlier age. Feminism, or equality if you’d rather, can’t be something that we’re embarrassed to talk about. We should be thinking about it on a daily basis, and instilling our kids with the confidence and understanding to speak up for equality.



Safety During Freshers

The kind of questions students are asking on student chat forums, versus the kind of questions we should be asking…


The other day I was googling “Freshers week” to find some good tips for the RAP website- Raising Awareness and Prevention Project- about staying safe and happy during your first week at University. I was shocked when I went online to find a page from “The Student Room”, a live forum, asking: “How to pull on Freshers week??”. Some of the threads were as old as 2008, some of the more recent threads, from 2017, were asking questions such as, “I’m a mature student, can I still get laid during Freshers week?”

Even more shocking were some of the responses elicited by these questions.

“Really depends on the amount of whores that are around. That is the truth. You may get lucky if there are a lot, and the boy girl ratio is in favour of the boys.”

“I tapped a 23-year old postgrad over the Summer. Good stuff.”

What has the 21st century- a world of TV shows and technology- done to our perception of relationships, I wondered. We are living in a world where we get ideas about what a relationship is from Love Island. A world where university students are encouraged, on a normal evening out, to get competitively drunk with their peers, before going out and “getting with” as many girls/boys as they can.

My experience of university was exactly this. In a way, I shouldn’t have been shocked to see the evidence staring back at me online. Sitting in dingy student kitchens, chanting drinking games, encouraging each other to down our pints in 8, 7… and then not remembering the night afterwards.

Freshers was not the “best week of my life” as some people claimed it would be; nor was it enlightening, nor did it help me to make functional relationships with other people. Two of the evenings, in fact, I have no recollection of. One of the evenings I remember leaving a club with a much older looking man who encouraged me to “come back to his” for another drink. Thankfully he wasn’t threatening and as I started to sober up I realised the potential dangerousness of the situation and left. Not all students, of course, get hammered during fresher’s week. Not all students find themselves in potentially threatening situations…but an awful lot do. It’s important therefore that we recognise the pressure that our students are facing and acknowledge some of the situations they are exposed to so that we can help them to have happier and healthier experiences of university.

Our culture is normalizing dangerous attitudes towards alcohol consumption and dangerous attitudes towards relationships and sex. We are creating environments where teens and students see “a successful night out” as one where they have taken someone home and “pulled”. “How many people did you get with?”, “How many people have you slept with?”. These are questions that commonly get thrown round these days, usually accompanied by a light-hearted, “I was so drunk” or “I was so high”. We desensitize ourselves to the severity of certain situations, to the mind-damaging effects of alcohol, to the emotional impact that having sex with strangers might have on us. And in the long run we set ourselves up to be more vulnerable, we find it harder to recognize what constitutes real, meaningful relationships.

It is so important we start talking about these issues more often and more openly. Students at university, and at secondary school, need to be made aware of the influences and pressures they are exposed to. Students need to be made aware of the ways in which they are culturally influenced every day. They need to be made aware of how unrealistic shows like Love Island are, and how potentially damaging the effects of bingeing and boozing can be.

We have bought our teens into a world of social media, broadcasting, reality TV shows, screens, screens, screens and left them to it. Fingers crossed they will be able to negotiate all this technology and turn out to be still bright, communicative, personable members of society. The pressures we have put on our teens have now grown so enormous we can’t simply stand back and leave them to it. It is our responsibility to help. It is our responsibility to make sure they are aware of all the ways they are being shaped, moulded, influenced, brainwashed sometimes, by technology. We need to teach our children safe behaviours, limits, strategies. We need to teach them how to practise healthy, caring relationships. We need to ensure that our students don’t just leave school with an A* in English or a First in Chemistry but with the skills to be happy, healthy and confident individuals.