Tag Archives: negative body image

If Real Teens Weren’t Being Harmed, Watching Facebook Squirm Would Be Fun

Four teenagers of different races and genders, walking together, arms around each other.

Debbie says:

The evidence is damning. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, who initially spoke anonymously with the Wall Street Journal and then did a public interview on 60 Minutes, has raised questions about several key Facebook behaviors. Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who was tasked with “civic integrity issues,” has revealed Facebook’s own studies which document that 32% of teen girls have experienced negative effects on their body image when they spend time on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). In the wake of the current scandals, Facebook has at least temporarily withdrawn its plans for an “Instagram for Kids” site.

Social media is not just a site of body image harm. The platforms can provide routes for teens (and everyone else) with body image issues to find support and community. High-profile entertainers like Lizzo offer remarkably strong body-positive images and statements. Well-designed studies and good medical advice are available to anyone with a good search string.

Nonetheless, the majority of people just scratch the surface of their social media sites, and so the tyranny of the majority has a lot of power. However much fat-positive work is out there to be proud of, there’s no denying that it’s overwhelmed by mainstream definitions of beauty … and mainstream peer pressure tactics. If a social media user doesn’t go looking for positive body image support, they’re unlikely to trip over it–while they will trip over “the norm” just by logging on.

Facebook — and TikTok, and SnapChat, and all the others — have ways to combat this. They have the tools to know who the central disseminators of negative information are. They could shut off the loudest dangerous voices and the most pervasive destructive images with a week’s effort. And they probably wouldn’t lose any significant amount of money. Instead, they double down:

They deny the value of their own data because of its small sample size. Small sample size is a problem, but who designed the study?

They say that Instagram didn’t do harm to teenagers in “other areas,” such as loneliness. Okay, great. But that doesn’t make this problem better.

They say a majority of respondents didn’t have exacerbated body image issues. Sure, fine, but 32% is a lot of people to hurt just because they aren’t the majority. And since some of those 32% reported increased or new suicidal thoughts, maybe we should take them seriously.

In case you weren’t thinking about it, boys have body image issues too. People of color are certainly affected, often very negatively, by the linkage between whiteness and “beauty.” Teens facing gender issues suffer from narrow expectations. And body image issues are not confined to teens–they affect everyone from pre-teens to octogenarians. Teen girls are the canaries in the mine, the group that is (often) most dramatically affected and most seriously at risk. The policies that fail to protect teen girls are dangers to a vast range of people.

It’s well known that people are ruder and more threatening on social media because they don’t really believe they are interacting with real people. Watching Facebook treat their own data as if it didn’t matter makes me wonder if social media users are just learning from social media moguls; if Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg and other Facebook higher-echelon folks don’t believe their customers are real, how will we learn to believe in each other?

NOTE:  This post is drawn from several sources, rather than just one or two. References available on request; just ask in the comments.


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When Body Dysphoria is Not Negative Body Image

Laurie and Debbie say:

In a fascinating piece at Medium, Amy Dentata (now there’s a great name!) uses Matthew Ngui’s “Points of View” (above) to describe her personal understanding of the difference between body dysphoria and negative body image.

"Points of View" by Matthew Ngui

Beauty has nothing to do with it: When Ngui’s chair breaks apart into several pieces, it no longer makes sense as an object. Parts that appear connected are, in reality, separate pieces. Half of the chair’s seat is actually a painting on the floor. The brain creates a spatial model of the chair, and then that model is violently torn to shreds when exposed to physical reality.

The viewer is upset: this was supposed to be a chair, and this is not what a chair is supposed to be at all!

Here’s Dentata’s description of this not-quite-a-chair phenomenon in her life:

My face is my primary source of discomfort. I can’t avoid it; I interact with my face every day when getting ready in the morning. And every day, my face looks different depending on how I feel. On bad days, I am overwhelmed with memories of my appearance pre-transition. My face looks hypermasculine to me, even though I regularly get read as a cis woman. This is clearly a problem with self-image. It doesn’t correlate to reality. It’s an emotional distortion. On good days, my face looks dramatically different. I stop seeing “the old boy” in the mirror, replaced with a face that feels right. It actually looks a lot like my face before I went through puberty the wrong way.

However, my face only feels right when I look at it straight on, in even lighting. Viewed directly from the front, without any shadows to reveal depth, my face registers as my own. It feels right. If I slowly turn my head, the dimensions of my face gradually stretch and become less and less recognizable. My face morphs into someone else’s.

By extension, “this was supposed to be my face, and this is not what my face is supposed to be at all!”

Dentata is careful to say that this is her personal experience, not to be generalized to all trans people. Nonetheless, she also points out that her clarity resonates with many people. Certainly the experience of having to interact constantly with a cis world’s set of presumptions is common to many trans folk.

Insurance companies categorize trans medical care as “cosmetic” and use this as a justification to deny coverage of trans-specific procedures. Psychologists write off body dysphoria as a delusional manifestation of body dysmorphic disorder. Friends and family dismiss the extreme pain caused by dysphoria and tell us to “just accept who we are.”

This is where Ngui’s chair, and Dentata’s other artistic examples of spatial illusion, come in.

Dysphoria causes … dizzying confusion, because the brain expects the body to take up space differently. These hips should be wider. These shoulders should be narrower than the hips. When a situation calls attention to these inconsistencies, it’s like Ngui’s chair breaking apart.

Experiences of negative body image are different for everyone but they also (like Dentata’s resonant clarity about trans experiences) have deep commonalities. The common experience of a cis woman looking in a mirror and disliking her body is not “dizzying confusion,” not the sense of pieces that simply don’t fall into place or fit together. When Dentata talks about facial feminization surgery, she’s talking about a very deep change in visual identity:

Trans medical procedures such as FFS offer a permanent, tangible solution to dysphoria. Instead of the illusion of a chair, you get an actual chair! The chair may not be as pretty as you had hoped, but damn it, at least it’s actually a chair! You can finally give your sore legs a rest without falling on your ass! And it’s a chair no matter what angle you view it from. Instead of a painting that disappears when you step away from it, you get a painting that looks the same from every angle.

Living in our bodies is complicated enough for those of us who never doubted that we were “an actual chair.” By using Ngui’s image, and others, Dentata brings a nonverbal richness to complex emotional concepts, offering her readers a creative visual approach to understanding something which is not completely expressible in words.