My Body Is Not A Democracy. Instagram Algorithms Limit Body Diversity.

How many extra chairs are required if everyone is getting a seat at the table? The space that makes up the online table is infinite and limitless; “everyone – regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, etc. – starts off on a level playing field” are words by John Suler (2004) with a Ph. D in clinical psychology and studies online behaviour. If we carry thoughts and a voice we can make a noise to be heard online; a space that bears our stories, experiences, insights, crafts, and creativity. Democratic and inclusive, this online realm provides the opportunity for individuals to engage with the world; showing up as unique and authentic beings, or so you would hope. Suler (2004) describing online spaces as creating  ‘equal opportunity’ demonstrates an idea put forward by a white, cis, able bodied man whose area of study has not ventured into the values Instagram holds on what bodies ought to be seen. This short essay will gather a brief understanding of social media’s effect on body image and then look at how larger bodies are being discriminated against on the Instagram platform; examples and voices of women who are influencers online will demonstrate Instagrams’ lack of democracy and how this is affecting society. 

Body Image and Wellbeing

Exposure to media images of bodies has been linked to increased body dissatisfaction, increase in self comparison and body/self objectification (Tiggeman & Zaccarado, 2018). These internalized messages have been shown to increase eating disorders and psychological harm to the individuals who view it. (Deghton-Smith, 2017; Easton, et al., 2018). A study by Krayer et al. (2008) looked at the types of bodies that are displayed in images online and found that social media is highly saturated with thin, white, women, most of whom are displayed as sexual objects.. Considering Suler’s (2004)understanding the extent of diversity of the online space, there must be consideration that the diversity of the viewers is equal or greater to those who post and so are their bodies. Which means; bodies do exist that are not thin, white, young and with smooth skin and these bodies and people who live in them are worthy and deserving of seeing themselves represented. 

The Diverse Are Banned

Jessica Richman (2019) went to CurvyCon; a three day event for plus size personnel in the fashion/media/entrepreneur space. Richman spoke with Instagrammers and influencers to understand their experience of navigating the online field as plus-size women. The theme that arose identified that plus size women on Instagram are commonly shadow banned (when their content becomes banned or blocked but they are not aware of this block), have content or profiles removed, flagged, or not show up under hashtag searches, and are overall disproportionately censored. A photo of someone in a bathing suit on a beach beach is pornography and removed if the body displays more flesh or different skin tone a standard thin white women. This gives society the message to internalize that one body type is meant to be seen at the beach. 

These larger bodied influencers are getting sponsored content removed and their legitimacy revoked, which is detrimental to their business and financial security. Plus size influencers whose income and livelihoods rely on sponsorships are facing unequal barriers from discrimination.

Instagrammer at CurvyCon, Carina Shero, described the reality that “as a plus-size person, the only media we have is what we create for ourselves” . This is crucial these women continue and stop getting silenced and shut down due to their appearance. These women engage and empower by sharing their photos and voices as they are role models that represent a more diverse and inclusive community. Currently In North America where 67% of women are plus size, yet 2% of social media content is plus size bodies. Shero shared that she receives messages from individuals telling her that they no longer are contemplating suicide because they found her page. For the first time these people are seeing someone that looks like them and encouraged them to find beauty within themselves. Additionally, she has received messages from partners of individuals who found her page to thank her for bringing their loved ones confidence, self worth and an increased well being.

Insight to the Instagram Algorithm Bias

Instagram policies have been brought to the news by Nyome Nicholas- Williams in August of 2020 due to her body not abiding to the platforms ‘nudity’ policies (Iqbal, N., 2020). Nicholas-Williams is a black plus size model who did a photoshoot called ‘confidence shoot’ with professional photographer Alexandra Cameron. Nicholas-Williams was topless, embracing herself in her arms. It is clearly a photo of self love and her nipples were not on display. However, this photo was flagged and Nicholas-Williams was warned that her account is subject to be taken down. When the established, Alexandra Cameron, heard this she was shocked as she had posted thousands of similar photos; however of white, thinner women potentially with less clothes and more ‘risque’ (Iqbal, N., 2020). This was Cameron’s first photo to get reported. Instagram apologized and promised revision of the policies and regulations to ensure the platform is decreasing bias and discrimination and CEO Andy Mosseri informed the Guardian he will ‘look into’ algorithm bias (Iqbal, N., 2020).

What Now?

Although the story of Nicholas-Williams made headlines, this is happening to people who do not have the following an audience to create a commotion about a photo getting reported. People who are sharing their bodies and messages with the online space deserve equal representation, for fairness to themselves and others to experience a normalized display of what a body looks like. Diversity to include every size, colour, age, shape, and ability creates an environment where body and life dissatisfaction, comparison and (self) objectification that so many people endure is replaced with acceptance, confidence and open-mind to the capabilities we all hold.

Instagram and online space are presented as democratic, equal and self governing; where individuals can show up and be seen as their authentic selves. The story of Nyome Nicholas-Williams demonstrated the reality that: if you do not present as the standard thin and white ideal, your body is subject to removal. This was The compilation of words from the women at CurvyCon have given insight when trying to promote yourself online and create a business and income when you present as plus size, yet censorship and discrimination create unequal barriers and playing fields to engage in the online space. Finally, negative psychological wellbeing can result from using social media due to self comparison, and lack of representation of bodies outside the thin white “standard”  If algorithms and policy can change to promote equal opportunity for being seen and heard using an online space we are giving those a voice and a platform who we need to see the most.

by Tiana Paltiel 02/23/21

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