Is Editing Our Pictures Ruining Our Body Image?

"The answers all lead back to one thing...the journey to self acceptance."

Image via Pexels

Social media has become an extra limb for the majority of us. It’s second nature to roll over in the morning and scroll through Instagram or Tiktok, soaking in a constant stream of shiny, flawless images. For those of us who religiously follow influencers and reality TV stars, our feeds are generally saturated with photos of people who look impossibly and effortlessly perfect. 

And it’s not just celebrities; it’s your friends and peers, too – everyone chooses their best shots, carefully curating their online image so that only the best makes the cut. Is it any wonder that when we go to post a photo, we worry about whether we look good enough compared to the rest? 

What harm is there in a subtle facetune to make your teeth a little whiter or waist a fraction smaller…Before you know it, your picture has been through five rounds of masterful tweaking and you don’t even recognise the person looking back at you. 

This is the nature of being part of an online sphere where perfection is the norm. Whether it’s a specific angle and a well timed shadow, or a full facetune makeover, very few of us allow our photos to reflect how we truly look in the moment. The effect this has on our relationships with our bodies can’t be a good one. But how can we fight back against the need to constantly look ‘perfect’ in every photo? The answers all lead back to one of the toughest journeys that a person struggling with their body image will go through – the journey to self acceptance. 

Alison, 25, spoke to me about editing her photos in college. “I didn’t have a good body image…I was seeing pictures of myself and not really believing that’s what I looked like in reality. I’d convince myself it was just a bad angle, so if I just tweak this, and this, it’ll look more like me”. 

Alison explained how the desire to make a small edit to a photo of yourself can snowball. “I was using an app where I could shrink my face, edit out any lumps and bumps. I would think ‘while I’m at it I’ll just blur my skin a little, hide some of those freckles, increase the size of my lips’…it was so easy to do”. 

When I asked Alison how editing her pictures made her feel about herself, her answer was twofold. “Honestly, it did make me feel better about myself. I could look back at a photo from a couple of weeks before and be like ‘I look good there, so what I see in the mirror is wrong’, and convince myself that’s how I looked. But I was tricking myself. During the editing process, that’s when I would be dissecting every little part of my body, tearing myself apart.” 

Alison isn’t the only one – in 2019, a study suggested that 50% of Irish people edit their photos before posting them. Four years later, this number is only increasing, and Covid hasn’t helped. 

Ellen Jennings, the Communications Officer over at BodyWhys, explained to me how things got tougher over Covid for people struggling with their body image. “They had this online version of themself that they perpetuated to the world, and then when it came back to the ‘in-person environment’, they had a sense of pressure to meet the standard they had set for themself –  to be this ‘perfect’ version of themselves”. 

In terms of the content we consume, Ellen points out that having good media literacy and recognising what isn’t real can be helpful. “Not only do influencers have a responsibility to be transparent about their content, but it’s also important that people are critical of the content that we’re viewing. [It’s about] developing that discrepancy of what we see online and what we see in real life.” 

Ellen also reminds me that there’s a wider picture surrounding the images that we see online. These influencers and companies can profit off people not feeling good enough about themselves. What’s fed to people is that a certain body image is associated with success…it’s marketing a body that’s going to bring you things. But even if you somehow achieve those ideals, you won’t get that sense of success or happiness. It can be really hard to accept yourself when you’re fed this narrative of a certain body type being put on a pedestal.” 

Image via Pexels

It’s pretty disturbing that bad body image is profitable, but it’s also a great way to remind yourself that by embracing your authentic, beautiful self, you’re liberating yourself. If you can love and accept your body, a consumerist and patriarchal society can’t tear you down. There’s serious power in loving yourself! 

When I asked Alison how she feels since she stopped editing her pictures, she told me that she feels like a “different person” now. “If I could talk to myself back then, I’d be like, what are you doing?! There’s no need to edit your photos to impress people that you actually know in real life, and who see you as you really are.” 

If you need a little help to finally ditch the edits, Ellen recommends diversifying your feed so that you see a range of different people. Try following people who don’t fit the conventional beauty standard, or people who empower you to embrace your unfiltered self. Ellen also praises the Instagram ‘mute’ function, which will allow you to stop seeing content from people who might trigger you, without them knowing.

And she stresses that the most important thing is recognising that your body isn’t defined by how it looks. “Body image is only one part of who you are. You are so much more than that, and you are enough.” 

What we see on social media is a fraction of a wider picture; one with a camera roll full of different angles, hours spent on hair and makeup – and of course, the magic of photoshop. Sure, these images look great, but the feeling they give us rarely matches their aesthetic. Photos are supposed to capture a memory, or how you felt in that moment, and editing them to ‘perfection’ isn’t the way to bring about positivity and happiness.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of STELLAR Magazine.