Mean Girls, Social Media and Adolescent Body Image

Social media is considered to have a significant impact on body image perceptions of women of all ages – particularly on adolescent girls. With the increased popularity and usage of social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, more adolescents are developing negative perceptions of their own body image based on what they see on social media. They begin to compare themselves to others resulting in poor mental health, body dissatisfaction and ultimately leading to destructive behaviour such as eating disorders. We see this behaviour portrayed in the popular film ‘Mean Girls’, although it is not directly addressed. We do see references to eating disorders, body image concerns and negative body portrayal. It is an accurate representation of some girls’ experiences through high-school (and beyond!), and can be observed in today’s society through social media in the same context of bullying, body image comparisons and dissatisfaction and can be effectively transcended and adapted to the issues in today’s society.

Body image refers to the way in which an individual views their own physical self, either in a negative or positive light, and can be influenced by various factors including social media, magazines and TV/film (Reach Out 2018). Research suggests that body dissatisfaction can lead to severe psychological problems, and has been identified as a serious public health problem (Fardouly et al. 2016). Particularly as social media continues to play a large role in the daily lives of adolescent girls, with studies suggesting that as many as 20 million American women alone will experience an eating disorder at some point in their life, with social media being a trigger to this behaviour (Tackett 2018). The following research exemplifies these ideas based on conducted studies on adolescents.

While social media can easily be blamed for portraying an ‘ideal’ body image, it is also a dissemination from other media outlets to mass audiences. The idea of a ‘perfect’ body image in recent times originated from media such as magazines and television, depicting women with a particular body shape, weight and size that are ultimately unattainable for the average person, and social media has assisted in the mass distribution of these ideals around the world. Following this, other outlets are able to disseminate images and videos to a mass audience, reaching millions of users on social media who begin to think that this is a standard of which they need to live up to. The weight of models, celebrities and other prominent figures featured in these magazines, runway shows and other events are often much thinner than the average woman. This inflicts a negative portrayal of the ideal body for adolescents to aspire to, sparking an increase in health and eating disorders in order to reach the ideal-self.

Continuing on from the idea of the negative consequences from body dissatisfaction, a recent study was conducted in the United States in which four ideas were explored, including whether social media is a major factor in perceived body image. The study found that participants felt that social media plays a major role in how they perceive themselves, and further draws attention to eating disorders and other negative behaviour (Kalnes 2015). It was determined that over 75% of teenagers use social media sites and the media portrayal of the ‘thin ideal’ is directly linked to high levels of body dissatisfaction and consequently to depression and eating disorder behaviour (Kalnes 2015).

Instagram ‘influencers’ or celebrities have generated millions of followers, and as this particular social media platform is prevalent amongst teenage girls, they may often feel overwhelmed by the pressure to change their appearance to fit the image that these influencers are producing. How many times have you been scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook feed, and thought to yourself “I wish I looked like her”? I know I’ve had these thoughts myself and have found it to be quite damaging, as various research studies suggest. It is important to remember that majority of the time, these images have been significantly altered or retouched in some way, and are often not accurate representations of the individual in the image.

Take this example of Jessica Alba in 2009, after being significantly photoshopped for a Campari Calendar Shoot (Vancouver Sun 2015). Her figure, skin colour and facial features have all been altered.

Example of retouched vs untouched image – Jessica Alba for a Calendar shoot

Presenting altered or edited images projects an unattainable image of how a woman should look or how society depicts the ideal woman, resulting in highly susceptible adolescent minds to attempt to attain these ideals, sometimes taking dangerous and harmful measures to do so, such as extreme dieting and other unhealthy habits. Further research needs to be conducted into the potential long-term effects of appearance comparison amongst adolescents.

As the popularity of social media sites increases, it is important for adolescents to understand that often, these images have been altered and manipulated to change appearances. A recent study conducted on adolescent girls determined that exposure to altered social media images resulted in lower body image perception, even though they were able to detect when a photo was reshaped or when a filter had been used (Kleemans et al 2016). The study was conducted using the Social Comparison Theory, of which is a well-known publication, and shows how we determine social and personal worth based on how we compare ourselves to others. Furthermore, this study concluded that girls with higher social comparison tendencies were more negatively affected by manipulated images on social media sites.

Further research on the idea of altered or edited photos and their impact on body image perceptions on adolescents have been undertaken, with the results showing that participants were more attracted to the retouched images, and opposing the previous research by Kleemans, participants were unable to distinguish between images that had been edited and those that weren’t (Harrison & Hefner 2014). This study also concluded that manipulated or edited images still had an impact on teenagers, as they project a false image of appearance of which, many teenagers may feel the need and desire to live up to these expectations and attract the same attention as those with altered images do (Harrison & Hefner 2014).

Examples of original versus manipulated Instagram photos emphasizing face, skin, and hair (left), or body (right) (Kleemans et al. 2016)

There are several examples of appearance comparison and judgemental behaviour in the media – take the popular 2004 film Mean Girls. While this was before the time of highly-visual social media sites such as Instagram, we saw the same effects in the form of ‘The Burn Book’. Judgements were made on other females based on their appearance, their style of clothing or their behaviour, then replicated and distributed to the entire school, creating disastrous results. In some aspects, social media has become the fictional North Shore High School, where adolescents are feeling judgement and pressure to conform and aspire to be like someone else. This film accurately portrayed the damaging effects of such behaviour on girls.

Social media also enables the opportunity for online bullying or “trolling”. Much like the fictional ‘Burn Book’, except instead of negative comments being released in ones’ school, its released to the whole social networking community. Not only are adolescents comparing their own appearance to that of others, but in some cases, comparing others’ appearances, making judgements and leaving hurtful comments. Has social media become the real life ‘Burn Book’? Information and images have the potential to become ‘viral’, or to spread throughout the internet at particularly fast rates, so adequate care needs to be taken before posting anything to social media sites.

Following this, other outlets are able to disseminate images and videos to a mass audience, reaching millions of users on social media who begin to think that this is a standard of which they need to live up to. The weight of models, celebrities and other prominent figures featured in these magazines, runway shows and other events are often much thinner than the average woman (often dangerously so). This inflicts a negative portrayal of the ideal body for adolescents to aspire to, sparking an increase in health and eating disorders in order to reach the ideal-self. This element is also explored in Mean Girls, as one of the main characters, Regina George, attempts to maintain a dangerously thin physique and remain a particular dress size. In some scenes of the film, she is seen to be on ridiculous ‘diets’ and giving in to ‘fad’ products that claim to maintain this figure (or so she thinks). This provides an accurate example as to the influence of social media, where influencers or celebrities are often seen promoting a product for weight loss, hair growth or teeth whitening, encouraging their followers to purchase or try them. Majority of the time, they are paid to promote these products, have never actually tried them and are often promising false measures of success.

Another recent study monitored the use of social media amongst girls for a period of five days, at an interval of five times per day. They were required to answer questions based on whether they had compared themselves to another on social media, looked better or worse than them, rated their body image and so on (Fardouly et al. 2016). It was found that majority of the participants thought that other users were more attractive, and found that comparing themselves was particularly harmful and negatively impacted their mood immediately following, more so than if they were to compare themselves to images in magazines (Fardouly et al. 2016). The findings from this study are consistent with other research conducted, and appearance comparisons on social media can be directly linked to depression, body dissatisfaction and other mental health concerns (Fardouly et al. 2016).

The common denominator in each of these studies was that of the negative impact of frequent use of social media. With millions of users in Australia, over 940,000 of these are people aged between 13 – 17 years of age (Cowling 2017). People of this age group are widely susceptible and easily influenced by what they see on social media, and are being exposed to images and ideas that are altered, edited or manipulated to project an unrealistic idea of appearance and body image. It is imperative for adolescents to understand the idea of images having been significantly edited on social sites as they begin to benchmark themselves to impracticable body image and beauty ideals that are ultimately unattainable. This eventually leads to poor mental health and potential eating disorder behaviour (Mingola et al. 2017).

Based on the results from this and various other studies conducted, social media is the platform in which adolescents are most likely to compare themselves to images of other people. It is important to take regular breaks or ‘detox’ from social media on a regular basis if it is causing negative feelings about body image. It would also be an effective means of reducing the impact of social media by choosing not to follow those who incorporate a large amount of editing into their photos. However, an individual must be able recognise the issues and negative impacts arising from social media use in order to take these actions and improve on their perception of body image. One of the key messages from Mean Girls is to always be yourself, and not to turn into something you’re not, which is an important lesson for all adolescents.

Sample un-retouched and retouched stimulus images (Harrison & Hefner 2014)

Works Cited

Fardouly, J, Vartanian, L & Pinkus, R 2016, ‘Social media shots affect body image because we only show our best side’, The Conversation, 16 December 2016, viewed 5 March 2018, https://theconversation.com/social-media-shots-affect-body-image-because-we-only-show-our-best-side-69783

Harrison, K & Hefner, V 2014, ‘Virtually perfect: Image retouching and adolescent body image’, Media Psychology, Vol.7, no. 2, pp. 134-153

Kalnes, K 2015, ‘Influence of social media on adolescent girls’ body-image perceptions’, Research Quarterly For Exercise and Sport, Vol. 86 Suppl 2, pp. A55-A55

Kleemans, M, Daalmans, S, Carbaat, I & Anschutz, D 2016, ‘Picture perfect: The direct effect of manipulated Instagram photos on body image in adolescent girls’, Media Psychology, Vol. 21, pp. 93-110

Mingola, J, Hutchinson, A, Wilson, C & Gleaves, D 2017, ‘The relationship between social networking site use and the internalisation of a thin ideal in females: A meta-analytic review’, Frontier of Psychology, Vol. 8 art. no. 1351, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01351

Ng, J 2015, ’20 Stars before and after photoshop’, Vancouver Sun, 3 March 2015, < http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/movie-guide/Photos+stars+before+after+Photoshop/6431423/story.html >

Reach Out Australia 2018, ‘What is body image?’, Reach Out, < https://au.reachout.com/articles/what-is-body-image>

Tackett, B 2018, ‘Social media and body image’, Project Know, Sober Media Group, viewed 5 March 2018, < https://www.projectknow.com/research/social-media-and-body-image/>

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23 Comments

  1. Ming
    0

    I don’t see much if a difference between mean girls and any other generic American High school or college film. I could never relate to the school experience portrayed in these films as it seemed so alien to my own. Talk of SAT scores, alma maters, semesters and sophomore years distances any viewer not schooled in the USA.

    • grames
      0

      Really? It’s the only teen film which ever nailed for me the experience of being a teenage girl, even though I grew up in the UK. Girls who eat their feelings, how cruel girls can be to one another, feeling desperate to fit in.

  2. Picard
    0

    It’s a bit confusing to me that the audience for this type of film transcends teenagers.

  3. carl
    0

    I used this every year as a teacher at a girls school to address the devastating bullying that scarred some girls for years. The girls loved it and it’s message worked. Great movie.

  4. terrie
    0

    Mean Girls is a pretty good film. But Heathers is better.

    • zickle
      0

      It is a decent film, essentially a sanitised version of heathers. Very watchable, very funny, I am surprised it gets the love it does though, over clueless and ten things I hate about you, both of which are, in my opinion, superior films. I wonder if it is an age thing? People who were young-mid teens in 2004 were the first generation to explode over social media. The only good film I have seen Tina Fey in, which is a shame. Are there any others?

  5. Dalene
    0

    Strangely enough, althugh I have heard many of the references, Mean Girls is one of the few High School films (along with Say Anything) that I haven’t seen. That is not going to prevent me from saying it sounds as though it as taken every one of its tropes (and probably its dialogue cues) from Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That.

  6. Brock
    0

    “Easy A” (sometimes “Easy Girl”) is easily the best of these so-called coming-of-age films… Emma Stone was already at her best, many great actors (Stanley Tucci, Thomas Haden Church, Malcolm McDowell…), lot of memorable punchlines, smart story, filming, editing… and always fun… So underrated.

    • forman
      0

      I *love* Easy A, what a great film!

      Mum: We’re a family of late bloomers.
      Brother: …but I’m adopted
      Dad: WHAT?! WHO TOLD YOU?!

      • Chatman
        0

        Best coming of age movie (and one of the best of all time) is Back to the Future.

    • Heike
      0

      The more I think about it the more I believe The Way Way Back is the finest coming of age film.

      Not only is Duncan, the central character, seen to develop, confront his issues and take control of his life but, unlike so many other similar films, several of the adults experience their own parallel coming of age. Albeit about 20 years further down the line from Duncan.

      It also helps that Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph are at their adorable best, as well.

    • netwick
      0

      I think Teen and coming of age movies are slightly different genres with movies sometimes having a venn type overlap.

      Stand By Me I think is the gold standard for coming of age films in my opinion. Covers all the bases it is just excellent. I like breakfast club but I find most of the characters unconvincing, I think of the Hughes movies I actually prefer pretty in pink.

      On teen movies I would love to say something high brow but American Pie I must confess a soft spot for. An awful movie that probably is pretty accurate on the life and motives of a teenage boy and offers up some funny set piece laughs.

      I think Mean Girls suffers from not being out there in direct Porkies type teen humour or too clunky in stereotyping and superficial to say anything serious about growing up.

      Just to recover from my American pie confession Yo Mama Tambien is also a great example.

    • Songi
      0

      Best high-school movie? Superbad, by far.

    • Tame
      0

      My favourite teen movie is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo: 120 Days of Sodom. It’s got important life lessons and loads of teenagers in it.

  7. Tollive
    0

    That movie made teenage girls look like monsters. It may have resonated with some girls and women but the majority thought it was imagined rubbish. Trying to take a social message from entertainment and script writing for profit is laughable.

    This was a movie – an attempt to make money. To take anything else from it is insulting young women.

    • Brother
      0

      Teenage girls (and boys) frequently ARE monsters – at least in my recollection.

  8. Lory
    0

    I’m more of the Breakfast Club generation (though perhaps we’re not officially not supposed to like it any more), but that’s beside the point. What interests and even, to an extent, worries me is the degree to which teenagers today, in the US and across the Atlantic, have actually been influenced by these films so that they’ve become self-fulfilling prophecies. Schools always had cliques; they always, alas, had bullies, but was ‘jock’ culture actually a phenomenon in the UK until recently? Was ‘mean girldom’ really actually found? In some ways, I think teenagers today may perform some of these roles. Popular culture can have an impact in that way, for good or ill, and I think it has been detrimental in the UK. ‘Plastics’ were supposedly being satirised, but it is often the case that those who are the subjects of a film, even if viewed/depicted critically, can end up being glamorised by it (cf Mafia films etc).

    • Odell
      0

      I’m 54 and there were definitely ‘mean girls’ at my school even if we didn’t call them that.

  9. Maudie
    0

    Mean Girls nails it on the pure entertainment scale. It’s got a well-worked plot, great dialogue, and exceptional performances throughout the cast. It’s not Citizen Kane but it has generated far funnier memes, and that’s what truly matters. Obviously, duh!

  10. Although the movie does address weight and a myriad of other issues girls have in high school, I think there’s also a lot to be said about little comments that are in movies. Even if the theme is not about body weight, a comment can subconsciously influence girls. For example, if a male character in a movie makes fun of his friend for dating a “fat” girl, that is something that, although quick and not part of the plot line, can put a negativity towards how we look and men perceive women. That’s just an example. However, this was a very informative article that raised a lot of important points!

  11. Munjeera

    I am happy to see a great deal of diversity in body shapes today.

  12. Pamela Maria

    Although a common topic, this is an important discussion that needs to be constantly refreshed while beauty standards against women still prevail in our society. I love that you brought in current social media practices and juxtaposed it into a cult classic like Mean Girls. Definitely still shows that the problems of the female image a few years ago are still prevalent today — just in a different platform.

  13. An interesting essay. I have a daughter who is a therapist and recommended it to her since she has several young girls as patients.

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