U.S. college women’s discursive construction of body image on social media

Paasch, Ellen and Eckler, Petya and Kalyango Jr., Yusuf (2014) U.S. college women’s discursive construction of body image on social media. In: European Communication Research and Education Association, 2014-11-12 - 2014-11-15.

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Women often observe one another’s bodies through real-life interactions or media exposure. As observations are internalised, women begin to analyse the bodies of others, and their own, as physical objects rather than a part of themselves, a process called self-objectification (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997). Self-objectification correlates with depression, body shame, and disordered eating (Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003). Also common among young women is fat talk: negative comments about your body’s size and shape. This mutual disparagement is widespread on campuses, as 93% of women have done it with friends (Salk & Engeln-Maddox, 2011). Much interpersonal and group interaction now occurs through social media. However, researchers have yet to examine how women discuss their bodies in this new environment. The present study fills this void by examining how U.S. college women discuss their bodies on Facebook. Women at a large Midwestern university in USA were surveyed in April-May 2013. about Participants were asked open-ended qualitative questions about frequency and content of posts about their weight, body image, dieting or weight loss as part of a larger study. In all, 881 women completed the survey, 77% (n = 678) were undergraduate. Average age was 23.8 (SD = 7.3). Most (86.8%, n = 766) had not posted on their Timeline about weight, body image, dieting or weight loss in the past month. The rest had done it, averaging 4.1 updates a month and 10% of their posts. Ninety-five comments were provided describing participants’ last post and 93 comments described a typical post. These 188 comments were analysed for common themes. Popular topics of last and typical posts were similar: exercise (35.4-35.9%), weight loss (24-26.1%), and food/diet (18.8-25.8%). Many posts about exercise discussed starting new workout programs (“trying a new spinning class with one of my friends”) or achievements (“how far I ran”). Weight loss was discussed in terms of plans (“Thinking about losing weight”) or results (“My pants getting loser”). Food/diet often discussed healthy alternatives (“Trying a new healthy meal recipe”) or starting a diet. Information about typical posts, last posts and reasons for posting was combined and examined for evidence of fat talk. Overall, 24 women (21.6%) participated in fat talk through posts such as “How mad I was at myself for letting myself gain so much weight …”; “how I wish I was taller”; “making fun of own weight”, etc. Overall, fat talk on Facebook seemed less common than in offline communication. Although losing weight and changing their bodies is a major preoccupation of women, posts present a better-rounded and more positive picture of body talk compared to previous research. This slightly different focus may be because Facebook is a unique platform often used to present one’s best self forward. Or fat talk may be a private behaviour only shared in close groups. Further, one’s list on Facebook contains friends, colleagues, family, potential or past dating partners, which requires a different mode of self-representation than in interpersonal offline communication, where such comments typically occur.