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Commodification Undermines the Body Positivity Movement, Study Suggests

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Key Takeaways

  • The body positive movement has gained traction thanks, in part, to social media. But some individuals and brands co-opt the movement for personal or corporate gain.
  • A recent study found that consumers recognize this disingenuous behavior, and it can harm not only the individual or company, but potentially the movement itself.

Brands and influencers that stoop to using prosocial messaging on social media solely for personal or corporate gain might think they're pulling a fast one on consumers, but a new study suggests these tactics might actually backfire on them.

The study, published in Communication Monographs, evaluated a group of social media users' perceptions of prosocial rhetoric on Instagram when it was paired with consumerism or self-promotion—specifically around the body positivity movement.

When it comes to the claims of countless corporations and content creators of embracing the movement (for example, using the tag #BoPo) in order to make sales or gain followers, the study's findings suggest consumers often see right through insincerity. And this could not only be damaging to the original poster but to the movement, as well.

“If content creators are consistently pairing pro-social messaging with product placement, it may dull the effects of the movement," says lead study author Kyla Brathwaite. "And this could apply to any social movement. People may not see the body positive movement as rich and powerful as it can be because it’s being paralleled with consumerism.”

The Research

For this study researchers recruited 851 female participants ranging in age from 18-89. Each participant was presented ten Instagram posts that included body-positive messages and featured such hashtags as #bopo and #allbodiesaregoodbodies.

Sprinkled among these were both posts of self-promotion that encouraged viewers to like, comment or visit a YouTube channel, and corporate-sponsored posts that promoted either a fitness plan, facial products aimed at hiding flaws, or a clothing line that did not mention appearance at all.

Kyla Brathwaite, Lead Researcher

Companies are always trying to seem more altruistic. It may be sincere, it may not be. It’s up to the consumer to decide.

— Kyla Brathwaite, Lead Researcher

After viewing these posts, participants were invited to fill out a questionnaire. Their responses revealed that the more a participant recognized promotional cues within the body-positive message, the likelier they were to believe that the poster's embrace of the movement was disingenuous.

Many brands are guilty of exactly this—posting body positive content or using adjacent hashtags alongside their posts to attract customers without actually aligning with the movement's values. Airbrushing models in ads, neglecting to offer inclusive sizing or failing to depict bodies of all shapes, races and abilities are some of the red flags that indicate a company's values might not align with their message.

Viewing the images that accompanied the posts, if participants determined the image depicted size-inclusive models, they were more likely to view the message as morally appropriate and authentic.

“Companies are always trying to seem more altruistic," Brathwaite says. "It may be sincere, it may not be. It’s up to the consumer to decide.”

Psychologist Robyn Pashby, PhD, who specializes in weight- and body-related issues, notes that not only does continuous exposure to commercialization have the potential to distort and water down the original message of the movement, it could actually change the way our brains work.

"Although this study showed that people were well aware of the selling tactics used in the IG posts, the sheer volume, frequency and intensity of this sort of advertising will shape the minds of the social media users, whether or not they recognize it," Pashby says. "Human brains change with repetition."

Remedying The Issue

For some, the body positive movement is a gift after enduring decades of shame and blame, Pashby says. And social media has allowed greater access to that gift, as it is in countless other communities, movements and schools of thought.

"For better and for worse, social media is highly relevant in almost all social justice movements," Pashby says. "Within the body positive movement, there are different notions about how to interpret the concept, and social media provides an international platform for discussion. Fortunately, having such a platform offers avenues for support that didn't exist prior to the social media world, while on the other hand increasing risk of more 'us vs them' grouping—are you body positive or not?"

And because social media isn't going away anytime soon, it's important that individuals and corporations understand how to promote a healthy environment online.

Robyn Pashby, PhD

We can all benefit and protect ourselves by limiting our social media use in general by carefully selecting who and what we follow and by remembering the golden rule: what is posted is not always, or even often, a reflection of real life.

— Robyn Pashby, PhD

Brathwaite feels her study's findings can help corporations better understand the importance and necessity of authenticity, as social media users can see through empty messaging.

"Content creators and corporations need to be strategic with the quantity and type of branded body positivity content that they’re putting on their pages if they truly desire to promote body positivity for their brand," she says. "If they're hitting people over the head with body positivity content, but consumers can see that potentially their brand doesn't align with the perceived values of the movement, that can potentially hurt them."

It's also important that individuals are literate when it comes to social media messaging and advertising. Pashby urges that everyone, young and old, spends time getting educated on navigating social media in the same way that teenagers are taught to drive a car.

"Just even teaching people that images of the thin ideal can make our mood and body image drop is useful," she says. "We can all benefit and protect ourselves by limiting our social media use in general by carefully selecting who and what we follow and by remembering the golden rule: what is posted is not always, or even often, a reflection of real life."

What This Means For You

Determining a brand or influencer's true intentions can be difficult. If it's important that the products and people in your life align with your values, do the research to ensure their actions and words are in harmony.

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  1. Brathwaite KN, DeAndrea DC. BoPopriation: how self-promotion and corporate commodification can undermine the body positivity (BoPo) movement on InstagramCommun Monogr. Published online May 27, 2021. doi:10.1080/03637751.2021.1925939