Unless you’re a social media superstar, It is unlikely you have had to endure a viral video with thousands of comments criticizing your appearance. On the flip side, you’ve more than likely heard or seen something that made you feel bad about yourself, somehow less than beautiful.
Maybe your mom made an offhand comment about a dress being too tight on you, or your sibling teased you about a bad haircut. Maybe you picked up the latest copy of People magazine and saw an actress who delivered a baby a month ago flaunting a belly that looked like it was never pregnant. (Apparently, doubling up on Spanx is a thing.)
No matter the source, something has made its way into your consciousness that negatively impacted your ability to see yourself as you truly are: beautiful.
I hate to break it to you, but those sources are never going away. Not your mom. Not your sibling. Not the magazines and not the media.
Anything and everything that has the ability to affect your self-image—positively or negatively—will continue to exist indefinitely.
Now for the good news: you have complete agency to minimize or eliminate the impact those negative inputs can have on you, your self-image, and your self-confidence.
You are not a magnet for every negative word or thought; you can learn to filter those voices and intentionally weed out anything that does not serve you well.
Psychologist Dr. Nichole Wood-Barcalow and her research team coined the term “protective filtering” to describe how people—especially women—use their “protective filter to process and respond to information, typically in a self- and body-preserving manner…(they) accept information that is consistent with positive body image while rejecting messages that could endanger it.”
Participants in her study were female American college students, ages 18 to 25. They were exposed to an Instagram feed created specifically for the study which featured images posted by eight popular female influencers with two million or more followers who were known for their idealized physical appearance. (Think Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Michelle Lewin, etc.)
The images curated for the feed emphasized appearance, exercise, food and nutrition, lifestyle, and entertainment and were deemed reflective of the current general beauty standards for women.
For the study, participants were seated in front of a laptop for ten minutes with the Instagram feed open, given a paper and pen, and instructed to write down everything that crossed their minds while viewing the images in the feed.
Following this ten-minute period, each participant was interviewed by a researcher for approximately an hour to record their thoughts.
What researchers observed resulted in the idea of protective filtering. For example, when participants questioned why the influencer was sharing a particular image, and perceived that its intent was to market or advertise something (weight loss product, makeup, brand of clothing), their protective filter kicked in and the images lost the potential to harm the participants’ body image.
When participants were critical about the time and energy that these influencers likely devote to diet and exercise in order to maintain the supposedly ideal figure, and determined that to put forth such effort would interfere with activities they personally enjoyed, their protective filter kicked in again.
One participant, Stefanie, suggested, “Sometimes I know that I don’t look like a model and that I have more weight than the average model, but I know that I like my life as it is and I love food. I love going to restaurants with friends and family. I really don’t want to exchange that for going to the gym twice a day and running five hours, not eating, or only eating vegetables, and always being so focused on my body.”
Almost all of the participants noted the fact that the ideal beauty standard was unrealistic for most people without cosmetic surgery or at least heavy filtering of images.
When the protective filter kicked in, they focused on the fact that they virtually never encounter “idealized” bodies in their daily lives. Rather, they are surrounded by people of all sizes, shapes, and skin colors.
One participant, Anouk, said, “It [beauty-ideal imagery] doesn’t reflect our society and how women are. It doesn’t represent what you see normally.” 1
When you are aware and critical of the unrealistic requirements for meeting the traditional beauty standards, you can choose to block any imagery or messaging that might harm your positive body image.
Knowing the images are not typical, and in many cases are not natural or real, you can dismiss them and move on. As Wood-Baraclow’s study concluded:
Women are confronted with potential influences on an ongoing basis, and they must in turn decide whether to accept or reject information…other people and negative images or messages don’t control your own body image. You decide things. When it comes down to it, you make your own body image. Despite women’s active commitment to protective filtering, it is not foolproof. Sometimes negative information would impact the women’s positive body image, but they chose to cognitively redirect their filter to reframe the information in a neutral or positive manner so it would not impact their body image long-term.
Next time you’re scrolling through your social media feed or thumbing through a fashion magazine, let your protective filter do its job.
You can appreciate the beauty you see, but use the strategies mentioned above to remind yourself that what you’re seeing is manipulated in some way and not necessarily portraying reality.
Ornella Evans, Sarah E. Stutterheim, Jessica M. Alleva, “Protective filtering: A qualitative study on the cognitive strategies young women use to promote positive body image in the face of beauty-ideal imagery on Instagram”, December 2021, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144521000917.
Nichole Wood-Barcalow, Tracy Tylka and Casey Judge, Positive Body Image Workbook (Cambridge University Press, 2021), Chapter 17.