By Abbi Beckett
This article describes an experimental study to measure the link between social media images, specifically those of fitness boards on Pinterest, and social comparison and body image of the viewer. It was discovered that individuals who follow more fitness boards have greater intentions of engaging in extreme weight-loss measures and that the endorsement of an ideal body type affected social comparison and the tendency to engage in such extreme weight-loss behaviors.
Pinterest is a visually-based website arranged like a virtual cork board. Users can “pin” images that link to external websites such as blogs and other sites. Pinterest is most popularly used for do-it-yourself, home decorating, fashion, and fitness inspiration. Pinterest is most widely used by women, and it can be considered feminized media. It is being explored as a space that offers optimism, empowerment and pleasure.
There have been studies for decades about the influence of mass media on body image and social comparison. But as social media grows, the authors Lewallen and Behm-Morawitz realize that it is important to include social media in the research of such links. The article describes observations and hypotheses before the study was conducted of whether or not appearance-focused fitness boards influence women’s social comparison and body image.
Several studies have been conducted of exposure to thin-ideal images. It’s obvious that such exposure does influence dissatisfaction in one’s own body and an increase in lowered self-esteem. It is speculated that women who use fitness inspiration on Pinterest would be more likely to engage in body modification behaviors. It should be noted that Pinterest does not allow “thinspiration” posts that encourage eating disorders. However, the images used for “fitspiration”, which encourages healthy dieting and exercise, can certainly be seen and used by the viewer in an unhealthy way like that of thinspiration which influences comparison and feelings of inadequacy and decreases self-confidence.
This specific study was conducted taking into account social comparison theory. This theory originates from social psychology, and the article discusses and explains this theory as described by developmental psychologists. People compare themselves to others as a means of self-exploration because they want to gain an accurate understanding of themselves. Children begin comparing themselves to their peers around the age of 7 or 8. These are generally task and ability-oriented comparisons, but appearance-based comparisons begin in early adolescents for both genders. These appearance-based comparisons are the focus in this study of Pinterest influence.
Before conducting the survey, it was also important to establish the types of appearance-based comparisons that people may make. The two discussed are upward comparison and downward comparison. Upward comparison is that of self-enhancement, when someone compares themselves to someone else as a source of inspiring self-improvement; they look up to someone else’s appearance as superior to their own. Downward comparison is that of self-evaluation by comparing yourself to someone who may seem to be worse off; the evaluator looks down on the appearance of those they’re comparing themselves to. Upward comparison can have positive and negative outcomes. When upward comparison influences a healthier lifestyle and change actually occurs, a positive outcome does exist; but at the same time, a negative self image may be developing and can ultimately lead to deeper disappointment if the desired goal cannot be attained.
The study was conducted through an online survey. 118 women between the ages of 18-64 and from 17 states and 4 other countries were surveyed. The measures surveyed were an ideal body stereotype scale, exercise motivations and social comparison extent thoughts. The moderators were age, body mass index and SCOFF, which was developed in the United Kingdom to measure potential disordered eating behaviors.
Four hypotheses were made before the survey began. The first hypothesis had two parts. Hypothesis 1a (H1a) suggested that “the number of fitness-focused pinboards (Fit Pin Boards) followed by participants would predict appearance social comparison and intentions to engage in extreme weight-loss behaviors when recalling their overall Pinterest use,” and H1b included when recalling the the Fit Pin Images they were exposed to during the experiment (Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz, 2016, p. 5). The results concluded that the hypothesis was true, and that Pinterest habits did influence the participants to engage in extreme weight-loss behaviors.
The second hypothesis suggested that “exercise motivations would influence social comparison when recalling exposure to the Fit Pin Images” (Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz, 2016, p. 5). The results did prove a direct relationship between exercise motivations and social comparisons.
The third hypothesis suggested that “endorsement of an ideal female body type would predict higher levels of social comparison and intention to engage in extreme weight-loss tactics when recalling overall Pinterest habits” (Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz, 2016, p. 6). This hypothesis was confirmed by the study.
The final hypothesis “predicted that endorsement of an ideal female body type would predict the degree to which participants compared their own bodies with those of the Fit Pin Images” (Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz, 2016, p. 6). This final hypothesis was also confirmed by the results. According to the article, users who endorsed the ideal body type were likely to engage in upward social comparison with the Fit Pin Images they viewed.
All of these results did confirm that social media, and Pinterest specifically, do have the power to influence users to engage in social comparison and extreme dieting and exercising behaviors. The article suggests that it is important to educate young girls and women to engage in social media critically. The authors even propose that educators add a body image element to discussions of media literacy in order to help individuals recognize the risks of social comparison in online and social media contexts (Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz, 2016, pp. 7-8).
Lewallen, J., & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2016). Pinterest or Thinterest?: Social Comparison and Body Image on Social Media. SM+S: Social Media and Society, (January-March 2016), 1-9. online.sagepub.com