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Illustration by Carlos PX/unsplash/stock

Content creator Spencer Barbosa remembers the first time something she saw on social media made her feel bad about herself. “It was the era of Tumblr thigh gaps and Pinterest flat-tummy posts,” she says. “I found myself saving, screenshotting and constantly reading those posts. I still remember I saw a ‘flat-tummy drink recipe’ online and I genuinely drank it every day trying to convince myself I liked the taste. It was nasty!”

She was just 10 at the time. By her mid-teens, she’d realized that what she saw on social media had a profound impact on her body image, especially when the influencers she followed used filters, misleading poses and Photoshop to craft an appearance that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

She was inspired to start posting her own self-love content on social media. On TikTok, where she has 7.4 million followers, you’ll see Barbosa dancing to Hot Wings (I Want to Party) from the movie Rio, with text spelling out her rules for summer in different spots on the screen. Among them, “always say YES to ice cream” and “take the bikini pics. Always. Even if I’m ‘bloated.’”

Barbosa isn’t the only member of Gen Z who’s rejecting the rigid and unrealistic beauty ideals prevalent on social media. Videos that show how fast-fashion clothing fits – or more often doesn’t fit – curvy bodies have become a common feature on TikTok, as have body-positive challenges such as showing your belly or posting your weight. This isn’t just an online movement, either. According to the brand-partnerships division of social-reading platform Wattpad, which has more than 94 million monthly users, 80 per cent of them Gen Z, this generation of “consumers starting to harness their own purchasing power want to see brands, advertisers and media representing all body types, skin tones, gender identities or abilities.” A 2018 McKinsey & Company report found most young people “will stop buying brands and spread the word about companies whose campaigns they regard as problematic.”

In response, governments and businesses are beginning to propose laws and policies that would require influencers to disclose the use of photo-editing software. But how effective can these government and corporate guidelines actually be?

Change is in the eye of the beholders?

Global companies with largely female customers have gradually been moving away from using Photoshop in their advertising. One example is Aerie, a sub-brand of American Eagle, which pledged to stop retouching its models in 2014, a savvy move that allowed it to steal market share from lingerie behemoth Victoria’s Secret, which has famously struggled to adjust to consumers’ desire for better representation.

But now institutions are turning their attention specifically to social media. Take Dove, which in the early 2000s was a pioneer in showcasing a variety of body types in ads with its Campaign for Real Beauty. “We only work with influencers that do not distort their appearance on social media – and through our community of influencers, we have created several campaigns that celebrate no digital distortion,” says Alessandro Manfredi, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Governments have been slower to address the issue. In Norway, a law passed in 2021 requires influencers to label heavily edited or retouched photos on social media or risk a fine or even jail time. In the United Kingdom, MP Luke Evans recently proposed the Digitally Altered Body Images Bill, which would require influencers to label paid posts “in cases where an image of a human body or body part has been digitally altered,” however it’s in a holding pattern. Members of the U.K. government’s Health and Social Care Committee have also begun calling for additional laws, including ones governing tighter regulations on social-media ads for cosmetic surgery. When it comes to Canada, however, none of the three bills aimed at regulating online spaces tackled retouched or edited photos.

In response to the proposed British legislation, communications firm Ogilvy UK recently announced it would no longer work with influencers who edit their photos in ads and sponsored posts. The company’s head of influence, Rahul Titus, told marketing magazine The Drum that he believes agencies and brands “have a duty of care … to the next generation of people so they don’t grow up with the same stuff we are seeing now.”

Why social media is bad for our body image

There are good reasons for attempting to regulate the type of images young people see on apps such as TikTok and Instagram. A 2020 article in the journal Body Image reported on girls experiencing appearance-related social-media consciousness, which the researchers defined as the “extent to which individuals’ thoughts and behaviours reflect awareness of whether they might look attractive to a social media audience.” It was correlated with a higher incidence of depression and disordered eating. Another 2020 survey found that one-third of U.K. boys aged 11 to 17 had absorbed messages about “bulking up” while online; unsurprisingly, this has led to a rise in eating disorders among boys and men.

“There’s a psychological process known as an upward social comparison – you comparing yourself to someone that you perceive to be superior to yourself in some way makes you feel worse about yourself,” says Jennifer Mills, associate professor and director of clinical training at York University’s Department of Psychology. “Some of the psychological effects that are most reliably shown include feeling more dissatisfied with your body image and your appearance, more anxious, less confident, less happy.”

This can be especially challenging for non-binary and trans people, who “experience the pressure of beauty standards from whatever gender they were assigned at birth, which is complex and possibly dysphoric,” says Vancouver-based model and writer Lydia Okello.“Then, on top of that, non-binary folks experience a lack of representation in body-image messaging of any kind, leaving us to wonder whether we fit the ‘right’ body to be non-binary or trans, which can also be very stressful and confusing.”

In some ways, this type of comparison is not new. But there is a real difference between a millennial or Gen X flipping through a fashion magazine as a teen and seeing an ultrathin supermodel, and today’s young people being bombarded with toxic and hyper-sexualized beauty ideals on TikTok and Instagram. There is now “an infinite pool of social comparison possibilities,” Mills says.

There is also an added incentive to create this type of content. “I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and I totally understand the pressure to edit your photos,” Okello says. “I think audiences are drawn to the perceived perfection of someone edited more. It also makes it harder for folks who don’t want to post extreme edits.”

Laws and policies are only one part of the solution

Not everyone is convinced that laws and guidelines focused on transparency will lessen the harmful effects of edited images. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Children and Media found that “disclaimers are a rather unsuccessful way of disclosing the lack of realism of media images.” Mills’s research has found the same. " They know that they’ve been Photoshopped or altered, but it doesn’t change the fact that they want to look like that,” she says.

What would be more effective? Mills wants social-media companies to make it easier for users to turn off certain types of content or turn down the frequency with which they see certain things. “People shouldn’t have to delete their app when they need a break, which is what’s happening now.”

Okello sees some value in laws governing photo editing, if even just as a starting point. “In an ideal world, folks wouldn’t feel the need to do extreme augmentation via Photoshop. But, as we live in the real world, I think it’s important for young people to know and spot signs of extreme alteration. And hopefully young folks would learn that they don’t need to measure up to that.”

Barbosa, who has worked with Dove on their Campaign for Real Beauty, agrees. “If we had laws like this, we wouldn’t have girls wondering why they don’t have perfect flawless skin, no stretch marks or hairless arms,” she says.

For now, she’s trying to inspire change on an individual level: “I would personally never use Photoshop on my pictures. I would hate to think I am showing I am ‘prettier’ with a filter, when in reality, I am stunning naturally, flaws and all.”