Skip to main content

Over the past ten years I have stumbled, somewhat unwittingly, into the role of social sexuality and body image expert. After I spoke to my niece’s sorority and my nephew’s fraternity, I started to get more requests to speak to college students. The significant gaps in students’ knowledge about sex became alarmingly evident as I responded to their questions, comments, and concerns. I was inspired to write a book, Sex, College, and Social Mediaby the confusion and misinformation I saw and by my desire to help young people navigate today’s media-influenced hookup culture.

Today’s omnipresent media has had a major impact on what we are conditioned to expect from our bodies, our sexual relationships, and ourselves. This has landed us in what I like to call the “misinformation age”—we are all so overwhelmed with conflicting messages and impossible expectations that it has become very difficult to get to the truth. Many of the questions I have received from students over the years stem from this growing mountain of misinformation.

Body image issues continue to grow as the culture feeds messages to consumers at a faster pace through more media than ever before. The relentless messaging at you, whether you are male or female, is that you're not enough—not attractive enough, not hot enough, not endowed enough, and so on—is a marketing ploy that continues to sell products. According to a study done in conjunction with the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, only 4 percent of women around the world consider themselves beautiful, 72 percent of girls feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful, and 80 percent of women agree that every woman has something about her that is beautiful but do not see their own beauty.

There is particular pressure on girls that starts very early in life, picks up intensity in middle school, and persists well into adulthood. A major aspect of social currency for girls and women continues to be rooted in physical appearance, including clothing and accessories designed to enhance a certain look. Peers, marketing campaigns, social media, fashion magazines, and tabloids fuel the pressure on girls and women by giving them constant reminders of what they could and should look like. The primary intention of mainstream products and marketing campaigns is to convince people that they are not enough and need the product to improve their appearance. This is further exacerbated by modern hyper-connectivity, which pushes girls and women to constantly compare themselves with others, reinforcing the notion that the way they look is somehow wrong.

Rather than existing comfortably in their own skin, many women engage in what Dr. Caroline Heldman, professor of politics at Occidental College, calls “habitual body monitoring”:

“What is habitual body monitoring? We think about the positioning of our legs, the positioning of our hair, where the light is falling, who’s looking at us, who’s not looking at us. . . . Eating disorders are much more prevalent with those who see themselves as sex objects, as well as suffer from body shame and depressed cognitive functioning. If we’re engaging in habitual body monitoring, it simply takes up more mental space that could be better used completing a math test, completing your homework. It just sucks our cognitive functioning.”

Body image is an issue for boys and men as well, but they are reluctant to complain openly, often because they are expected to be emotionally unaffected and strong. Pressures surrounding body image are mainly unspoken and unacknowledged among guys who are friends. Being athletic, muscular, and well-endowed are three attributes that give boys and men more social currency, particularly with other guys. While there aren’t as many products on the market directed at males, the message that you must look a certain way is conveyed through bodybuilding websites, popular video games, marketing, movies, and Internet porn. Many men thank me privately or by email for talking openly about the relentless pressure to be "man" enough.

The Void

The Internet and social media relentlessly barrage us with reminders, posts, and images about other people’s livesconstantly sending messages about what we could, should, or would be if we only purchased certain products, made certain choices, or engaged in certain behaviors. It is not surprising that people today experience deeper feelings of emptiness—of an internal kind—than those in previous generations. Knowledge of the specific detail of other people’s possessions and lifestyles can set an expectation and standard for anyone who spends a lot of time online or using social media. The bar gets high pretty quickly. Intensive awareness of the many things that can be purchased, worn, seen, or done means that keeping up is a constant scramble and can distance us from our own desires and thoughts. With so much stimulation readily available on our phones, tablets, and computers, we are spending less time with our own thoughts and more time filling the void with technological input of one kind or another.

Filling voids with stuff does not build lasting connection or genuine happiness. Roko Belic, director of the documentary film Happy, says, “One of the leading researchers of happiness in the world, Ed Diener, told me that a person’s values are among the best predictors of their happiness. People who value money, power, fame, and good looks are less likely to be happy.”

Thirty years ago, young people felt pretty special if a handful of peers considered them to be mildly interesting and called them on the phone occasionally. The pressure to be wildly interesting to hundreds of people on a daily basis in multiple public forums is exhausting, and it is taking an emotional toll. Poring over people’s photos and posts can lead to feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and resentment. Social media platforms give users the opportunity to put their best face forward—and in some cases it’s a completely false image.

It is important to remember that the people whose lives we admire through social media have often spent hours editing their photos and posts to create an impression of perfection that does not reflect reality. College students report that viewing their friends’ feeds, with flattering photos and posts about their exciting lives and the fabulous places they visit, makes them feel boring, uninteresting, and pathetic sitting in their dorm room in their sweatpants. It is easy to get caught up in viewing for hours, reinforcing the warped perception that everyone else’s lives are more interesting than your own.

The truth is that humans are complicated and multidimensional, and have the capacity to be excellent people with flaws and also be physically attractive with bad days. Social media, however, isn’t the venue in which our multidimensional selves, including our misgivings, foibles, and literal and figurative pimples are presented.

Most people learn to stop caring about the opinions of the crowd eventually, but some are at the mercy of others’ opinions deep into adulthood. Until you make a conscious choice to disengage, it can feel like middle school never ends. Many people assume that peer pressure will simply stop when they become adults. From the land of middle age, I want you to know that there are plenty of seventh-graders-at-heart still hanging around, worried about the same old stuff. It is up to you to pull away from the attachment of what other people think.

Letting go of the need to feel socially relevant and finding comfort in being significantly insignificant can lead to a more realistic and healthy outlook on your social life. Slowing down and paying attention to the ways you engage with your devices is a great start. Author and psychotherapist Gunilla Norris summarizes the need to be in our own minds in this way: “Within each of us, there is a silence, a silence as vast as the universe. And when we experience that silence, we remember who we are.”

Cindy Pierce is author of Sex, College, and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture, from which this article is excerpted.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock