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How looking at other people's selfies can make us feel bad about our own bodies

Published: 11 October 2023

A woman sitting on a sofa taking a selfie

New research led by York St John University suggests a link between viewing pictures of idealised bodies on social media and feeling dissatisfied with our own bodies.    

Researchers examined whether the angle a woman’s body was photographed and viewed from was related to judgments around attractiveness and weight.   

Previous research indicates that spending time on image-based platforms like Instagram or TikTok can negatively affect body image. With this in mind, the researchers from York St John University and the University of York aimed to identify the specific features of photos that contribute to this effect.   

Their new study publishes today, Wednesday 11 October 2023 in PLOS ONE. Read the full article on the PLOS ONE website Do selfies make women look slimmer? The effect of viewing angle on aesthetic and weight judgments of women’s bodies.     

To shed new light, Dr Ruth Knight and colleagues evaluated the judgments of female participants in response to photos from different angles of 10 female volunteer models dressed in exercise clothing. With faces excluded, each volunteer’s body was photographed at several angles: from a traditional external perspective, a selfie taken an arm’s length away, a selfie taken using a selfie stick, or from the volunteer’s own perspective, with the camera looking down from the chin. Participants also completed a questionnaire to measure the degree to which they engaged in thoughts and behaviors related to disordered eating. 
Analyzing results from four different experiments, the researchers found that participants tended to judge bodies in the selfie images as slimmer than bodies in the external-perspective images, however, there were no significant differences in attractiveness ratings. Chin-down images were judged to be less slim than selfies, and the least attractive of all the perspectives analyzed. 
They also found some evidence that participants with a higher level of certain disordered eating symptoms tended to rate bodies in selfies more favorably. On the basis of this finding and prior findings from other studies, the researchers suggest that viewing selfies could be more damaging than other types of photos to people who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders. 

Lead author, Dr Ruth Knight from the Department of Psychology at York St John University, said: “Given the rising rates of body image concerns and eating disorders, it's crucial to understand the impact of social media on body image.   

“One of the things that's unique about social media is that it allows us to take photos of ourselves, and then upload them for a vast network of people to see.”    

“Awareness of how we judge images can help mitigate negative effects on body satisfaction, dieting, and the risk of eating disorders.    

“We are not saying looking at selfies of women makes you have an eating disorder, it is so much more complicated than that. But what we are saying is, it might be having an effect on how we feel about ourselves.”   

The study involved 10 models photographed from four angles: selfie, selfie using a selfie stick, allocentric (standard), and egocentric (looking down at their own body).    

A different set of participants, who didn't know the models, then rated the images on  attractiveness and slimness.   

The study excluded participants with diagnosed eating disorders, but many showed signs of disordered eating, the researchers said.   

Co author, Dr Catherine Preston, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology, added: “We found the judgements that people made across different perspectives were related to their own disordered eating thoughts and behaviours.   

“It might be that those already vulnerable to body dissatisfaction are more likely to make different aesthetic judgements based on the angle that bodies on social media are viewed from, thus making them more vulnerable to feeling negatively about their own bodies in comparison.   

“The relationship between body dissatisfaction and viewing bodies on social media is multi-layered and complicated – visual perspective may be one of many factors playing a small role in this.” 

Do selfies make women look slimmer? The effect of viewing angle on aesthetic and weight judgments of women’s bodies.

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