You know those selfies that are now kind of all over the place on social media? Well, women may actually appear slimmer in such selfies than in photos taken from other angles, according to a study just published on October 11 in the journal PLOS ONE. In other words, what you may be seeing on TikTok, Instagram, FaceTwitter, X-Marks-The-Spot, or whatever social media sites you frequent could in fact be slim pickings, so to speak. Yes, the images on social media may—surprise, surprise—not accurately represent reality. And with so many people these days seemingly driven by “selfie-esteem” and comparing themselves with what they see on social media, you’ve gotta to wonder what seeing such slimmer-than-reality images all the time may be doing to everyone’s body images and self-esteem.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid social media all together and have never heard of the word “selfie,” the term is short for “self-photograph” because who could be bothered to say the word “photograph.” Specifically, a selfie is when you hold a camera—most often a camera in the form a smartphone—in one hand and extend the arm connected to that hand to take a picture of yourself and whatever else may be around you. Another way of taking a selfie is to mount the smartphone at the end of a stick—ingeniously called a selfie-stick—so that you can capture of wider view of what’s around you.
The angle of the camera and positioning of your body can distort the image to varying degrees. For example, your arm can look a bit like Elastigirl’s arm, longer than normal. Plus, your chin tends to be up since you are looking up at the camera and trying to convey, “Hey world, look at how great my life is.”
Not all self-photographs are selfies. Selfies are different from a more traditional chin-down self-photograph that has you holding your smartphone with both hands, looking straight into the camera with your chin down, and taking the photo. All self-photographs can be considered egocentric photos because you are essentially doing everything in that photo, taking it and posing in it at the same time. This is in contrast to allocentric photos where you ask someone else to take the photo of you. Allocentric is the opposite of egocentric and is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as “having one’s interest and attention centered on other persons,” because, you know, the world doesn’t simply revolve around you.
For the study, Ruth Knight, PhD, a lecturer at York St John University, and Catherine Preston, PhD, a Senior Lecturer at the University of York, both in the United Kingdom, first had 10 female models dress in form-fitting exercise outfits and take their own photos or get their photos taken in the following four different ways:
- An allocentric someone-else-is-taking-the picture perspective.
- A selfie where the model extends her arm.
- A selfie where the model uses a selfie stick
- A chin-down or look straight-in-the-camera-with-the-camera-looking-down-from-the-chin self-photograph.
Then, the researchers recruited adult women who were 18 years or older and had no history of eating disorders to evaluate the weight and attractiveness of the models in the different photos. Yes, they told study participants to get all judgy. All told, 69 women participated in an experiment where they compared the selfies with the allocentric photos, 50 participated in an experiment that compared selfies with the chin-down egocentric photos, 44 in an experiment that compared selfies with selfie-stick photos, and 109 in an experiment comparing all four types of photos. In all but the last experiment, each of these study participants models also completed the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire 6.0 (EDE-Q), which contained 28 questions that assessed the person’s eating disorder symptoms over the previous 28 days.
In general, study participants were more likely to judge the selfie images as slimmer than the other images. There were no significant differences in how they rated the attractiveness of each model in all types of photos with the exception of the chin-down egocentric photos. They were considered least attractive in these chin-down photos. Moreover, those who reported more disordered eating symptoms on the questionnaire tended to have even more favorable views of the selfies compared to the other photos.
Of course, this study like people was not perfect. It didn’t include a lot of participants from very diverse backgrounds. And ten models is not a lot of models. So, before you insist on replacing your driver’s license photo and other photos with selfies, keep in mind that not everyone may necessarily look slimmer in a selfie.
Nevertheless, all of this does add to the growing body of evidence that social media is providing rather unrealistic images of people’s bodies, which, in turn, may be decreasing people’s satisfactions with their own bodies. For example, a systematic review published last month in the journal Obesity Reviews found 21 studies published between 2019 and 2023 that looked at the relationship between adolescents’ social media use, mental health and diets. These studies overall showed that social media use was associated with depressive and disordered eating symptoms, body dissatisfaction, and anxiety.
So what can be done about this? It’s not as if society can start banning selfies like the fictional town Bomont banned dancing in the 1984 movie Footloose. Social media companies won’t begin insisting, “All photos that you post must be taken by someone else.” Even before the advent of social media, Hollywood, advertising firms and other sectors have long been bombarding you with images to shape what you should consider to be attractive. This in all likelihood will continue. And selfies, social media and all the like and “likes” are most likely here to stay. In fact, who knows what other you-should-look-like-this technology will emerge in the coming years.
Therefore, there needs to be more appreciation of how unrealistic everything on social media can be. It isn’t in people’s selfie-interest to use what’s seen on social media to base their self-image and self-esteem. More effort is needed to ground kids as well as adults more in real life to help them understand that looks are subjective and then a person’s worth is based more on what’s inside. After all, if you don’t have a great sense of self, you could end up being swayed by what you see in selfies.