A qualitative study exploring the Influence of Instagram on 18–34-year-olds body image during the COVID-19 lockdown
Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has had adverse effects on mental health, physical exercise, and dietary habits. During the COVID-19 lockdown, time indoors and time spend on social media increased which caused a societal trepidation of weight gain. On the social media site Instagram, diet culture content (alluding to a fear of weight gain and pressure to lose weight) increased, reflecting and reinforcing this fear of weight gain as well as the notion that it is undesirable to gain weight. This content created online comparison, with users comparing themselves and their bodies to others, prompting changes to eating habits to achieve the ‘ideal body’. The distribution of such messages may have led to an increased focus on body-image, which has a myriad of associated health harms, including body-dissatisfaction, mental illness and eating disorders.
Methods: This qualitative research explores factors leading to Instagram users being influenced by diet culture during the COVID-19 lockdown. Preliminary analysis of Instagram content provided an initial understanding of diet culture messaging on Instagram shared during the lockdown. Diet culture related posts were scraped and coded to identify the most commonly discussed topics. Posts holding a strong diet culture message were also selected for photo elicitation during the interviews. Interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of male and female 18-34 year olds who use Instagram. Data were analysed thematically and provided in-depth insight into participant’s views, knowledge, reflections and experiences.
Results: The study found that diet culture on Instagram is omnipresent and gendered in the ideals that are presented. In terms of the socio-ecological model, several factors influenced body-image and eating behaviours at the individual, interpersonal and community level. Home-workouts and comparisons were the most significant factors discussed, with both prompting body-dissatisfaction. The use of emojis, in particular the pig emoji, were seen as stigmatising. Peer endorsement reinforced diet culture messaging through comparison with friends who liked diet culture related posts. Several factors were seen as protective against diet culture rhetoric including body positivity posts and awareness that Instagram is not always a representation of reality. Other factors were identified as having both positive and negative influences on body-image and eating behaviours such as the use of humour and individual mind-set.
Conclusions: The study found that diet culture on Instagram is omnipresent and negatively impacts body-image and weight-related behaviours, particularly among those with pre-existing mental health issues and body concerns. Recommendations based on the study findings include disseminating accessible information in a variety of mediums (including social media influencers) that counteracts diet culture rhetoric, increases body positivity, and raises critical media literacy among users. Environmental responses are also needed including stricter regulation and trigger warnings for body image related content and advertisements by Instagram. Future studies should address how diet culture influences Instagram users of different ages -in particular those aged under 18 years, who may not have the same level of media literacy as older users.
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