Break the media monopoly over women’s bodies

October 13, 2021
Whistleblower Frances Haugen testified about Facebook's role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.

#Breaking! The Facebook empire is putting “astronomical profits” before people.

This is not news to many of us, perhaps, but whistleblower Frances Haugen mounted an important critique in her evidence to the United States Senate Commerce Committee on October 6.

Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, said Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy”. She provided thousands of company documents to Congress that, she said, prove Facebook “repeatedly misled the public … about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems, and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages”.

The documents include research showing Facebook knew its sister site Instagram was exacerbating body image and mental health issues among teenage girls, but did nothing.

A host of recent studies point to a correlation between time spent on social media, negative body image and disordered eating. Evidence shows girls and young women who spend a lot of time on Facebook and/or Instagram feel more concerned about their body because they frequently compare their appearance with others.

Extensive use of digital editing and filters compounds this anxiety as the bar is constantly raised on what is perceived as the ideal.

Some United States polls have found that two-thirds of people alter their image before posting to social media, while a University of London study last year found 90% of young women used digital editing and filters.

Idealised body images are also perpetuated by “fitspo” and “thinspo” social media accounts. Fitspo images generally reflect toned and slender athletic bodies overlaid with motivational quotes.

This was a supposedly positive shift away from the cult of thinness, instead encouraging women to be fit. However, typically images depict fit and slim together and, once again, studies indicate many women come away with increased levels of anxiety and depression.

Of course, none of this began with social media: it is rooted firmly in a system that commodifies women and tells them what they should look like.

I have a laugh every morning on the way to work when I pass a retailer that claims to “empower” women through their exotic underwear. If only it were that easy!

Despite the achievements of feminist activists, this society still treats women as second-class citizens. Women are still fighting to achieve equal work opportunities and equal pay. Women still suffer rape, sexual harassment and even death at the hands of their partners.

Author Naomi Wolf chronicled this in The Beauty Myth, published in 1990. It is worth re-reading because of its continued relevance: it argues that women’s liberation was curtailed by an exponential rise in the demand for “beauty” from women.

Wolf identifies a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement —a weapon that undermines confidence and divides and rules.

So, all power to Haugen for exposing the toxicity of Facebook and Instagram. The social media giants promoting the “beauty myth’” need to be challenged because they help maintain a system that oppresses women.

Feminists still have so much ground to win. But we need to connect our struggles to the broader fight for survival of the planet. It is a fight for a new and different system that can halt the advancing environmental crisis and in which all people are equal. It’s about advancing a politics that puts people and the planet before profit.

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