Body hashtagging has to end. (Photo: Instagram)
Everyone does it these days, tag their photos on social media feeds to announce their aspirations when it comes to their appearance or fitness objectives (#BootyGoals, #ThighGap, #PerfectBody), or even their insecurities (#HateMyBody, #ThunderThighs, #FeelingFat). But either way, the trend of “body hashtagging” has got us all thinking of bodies—both other people’s and our own—as parts to be scrutinized and judged. And that’s not good.
Without question, hashtags have changed the way we think. Online and in real life, they help us organize our thoughts and keep track of the avalanche of information we now encounter daily. “They can help us find support and like-minded communities, which is great, “ says Sara Magee, PhD., associate professor of Communications at Loyola University in Baltimore, MD. But when it comes to how hashtags are used when we talk about our bodies online, they often promote competition and comparison. They encourage obsessing over particular body parts and blow any perceived imperfections out of proportion. “The tags suggest a norm for what the body should (or shouldn’t) look like,” says Adina Fradkin, a registered dietitian in Annapolis, MD. “But the truth is that not all bodies look the same at a healthy weight.”
For Jessica Paugh, 28, of Brooklyn, NY, body hashtags are inspirational when she’s on track with healthy eating and going to the gym, but the opposite when can’t find time to take care of herself. “If I need motivation, then the tags don’t bother me and they can actually be kind of fun,” Paugh tells Yahoo Beauty. “But when I’m in a state where I need validation, they cause a ton of shame and anxiety.” And that kind of negative loop can “impact our self-esteem and our confidence,” says Jen Hartstein Psy.D, a New York-based child, adolescent and family psychologist and author of Princess Recover: A How-to Guide to Raising Strong Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters.
According to Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful campaign, which aims to encourage women to be more positive when tweeting about beauty and body image, a staggering 5 million negative beauty tweets were sent in 2014. Worse still, women are 50% more likely to tweet negative beauty/body image sentiments about themselves than positive. And it’s complicated because sometimes tags that seem benign or even positive, such as #Health or #Fitspo, are attached to photos that actually depict or describe unhealthy practices. “People will throw those tags on to make it seem like a behavior is normal or innocuous,” Alexis Conason, Psy.D, tells Yahoo Beauty.
“But they can be trying to mask or normalize whatever it is that they’re doing.”
Another issue is that the online community of “friends” aren’t really your friends, and they can encourage people to do things that are actually negative. For example when followers provide tips on extreme dieting or rigid workouts that can lead to unhealthy consequences. “If you were to express negative body thoughts or unhealthy goals to a trusted friend or family member, chances are they’d call you out on them if they were worried about you,” Conason says. “But online, people tend to goad each other on without thinking about consequences.”
Thankfully, though, tagging of another kind is also happening. Bandelettes thigh bands which prevent thigh chafe are gaining popularity by overhauling popular hashtags. “In our opinion, having a thigh gap isn’t a goal, but rather an unfortunate departure from a definition of feminine beauty that we love,” explains co-founder Rena Abramoff. “So we’re proud to tag our media with #NoThighGap despite the fact that current trends suggest we should all want one.” Hear that girls? Thigh gaps aren’t something to aspire to. Body confidence is.
Similarly, fiercely body positive tags such as #ThickGirl, #BigIsBeautiful and even #EffYourBeautyStandards are aggressively pushing back against narrow, limited definitions—even though those who use them often endure intense trolling and cyber bullying. “Instead of not posting a picture because I think my thighs look too big and someone might criticize them, I own the fact that my thighs are big,” says Maggie Morgan, 22, of Ottawa, Canada. “I turn it into a positive aspect by hashtagging in a way that can’t be trashed, like #ThickThighsSaveLives.” Ivy Doomkitty, 25, a cosplayer who designs and models costumes based on fictional characters from videogames and films, agrees. “People leave horrible, mean comments on my photos because I don’t match their definition of beauty,” Ivy says. “But being publicly confident about the body I have is my way of making change.”
And that’s exactly what we all need to be doing according to Jess Weiner, Dove’s Global Self-Esteem Ambassador. “Disrupting the current negative or aspirational online conversation around bodies is the first step to change,” Weiner says. “And ideally, the change that’s starting on social media will carry over into our real lives.” The best way to help it along? “We all need to realize that it’s actually we who control how we talk about our own and other peoples’ bodies online,” reminds Weiner. “And it’s up to us to make decisions that will transform the conversation.”