Are AI Generated Images Also Contributing To Unrealistic Body Expectations?

The algorithms used to generate these images often rely on existing cultural beauty standards

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

The negative impact of social media on self esteem leading to unrealistic body expectations, particularly for teenagers, has been well documented.

Despite the vast majority of people being aware of these negative impacts, it has done very little to curb the amount of time we spend on social media on platforms such as Instagram or TikTok; some of the worst culprits for photoshopped images and comparisons leading to unrealistic body expectations.

Recently, AI generated images have garnered significant attention across social media platforms and advertising campaigns. These images, carefully constructed using complex algorithms that amalgamate features from various photographs, present an idealised concept of beauty with flawless skin, symmetrical features, and seemingly perfect physiques.

As these images are shared more widely on social media platforms there is a risk they will contribute further to unrealistic body expectations. They can also give us an insight into what exactly those expectations are currently.

This month, photos depicting the ‘perfect’ man and woman were generated by AI… and they looked exactly as you’d expect them to.

A study conducted by The Bulimia Project found that 40% of AI generated images overall depict unrealistic body types. 37% of AI-generated images of women depict unrealistic body types, while 43% of images of men show the same.

The organisation used four prompts, the first two were the ‘perfect’ man and woman according to social media in 2023, while the second two were the perfect man and woman in 2023.

When it came to women, the AI generated images tend to have a bias toward blonde hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. 37% of the images included blonde hair, 30% of the images included brown eyes, 53% of the images included olive skin.

Photo by Athena

For men, the images tend to have a bias toward brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, with 67% of the images including brown hair, 23% including brown eyes, 63% of the images including olive skin, and 47% including facial hair. Additionally the majority of images generated were of Caucasian men and women.

What’s more is that the images generated often include strange and unrealistic body parts. The Bulimia Project concluded that “that the reason AI came up with so many oddly shaped versions of the physiques it found on social media is that these platforms promote unrealistic body types, to begin with.”

At the core of the issue lies the concept of body positivity, which encompasses the acceptance and appreciation of diverse body types, challenging societal beauty norms, and fostering self-love and confidence. However, the rise of AI generated images threatens to erode these ideals, potentially leading to detrimental effects on body positivity and self-esteem.

AI generated images of the ‘ideal’ woman and woman perpetuate an unrealistic and unattainable standard of beauty, reinforcing the notion that physical perfection is the norm. As individuals compare themselves to these digitally altered representations, the chances are they’ll experience feelings of inadequacy and discontentment with their own appearances.

The algorithms used to generate these images often rely on existing cultural beauty standards, further entrenching societal biases and perpetuating specific body stereotypes. This reinforcement can contribute to the development or exacerbation of body dysmorphia — a mental health condition characterised by obsessive thoughts and concerns about one’s appearance.

Vulnerable populations, including adolescents and individuals already struggling with body image issues, are particularly susceptible to the negative impact of AI generated images. Constant exposure to these images will likely intensify feelings of self-consciousness, anxiety, and depression, potentially leading to harmful behaviours such as extreme dieting or seeking unnecessary cosmetic procedures.

While the rise of AI images presents a problem to be addressed it also highlights how little progress we have made in the area of promoting real bodies on special media… and how much work we still have to do.

By Fiafhlaith Ní Mhurchú