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The body positive movement on social media seeks to challenge narrow conceptualizations of beauty that media outlets traditionally perpetuate and reinforce. Through a 2 × 2 between-subjects online experiment, we examined how the nature and authenticity of body-positive imagery on social media affects female viewers and their evaluations of body-positive content (N = 425, Mage = 35.47, SDage = 13.52). Specifically, participants viewed and reacted to a series of 10 body-positive images of women on social media varying in their degree of sexualization (sexualized vs. non-sexualized) and evidence of digital photo modifications (modification icons vs. no modification icons). A control group that featured landscape images was also included. Results indicate body-positive images that are considered sexualized and are believed to be digitally modified can undercut the movement’s intended aims: Participants who viewed body-positive images that were sexualized (vs. non-sexualized) and included photo modification icons (vs. no modification icons) reported greater endorsement of traditional beauty ideals (e.g., thinness) and thought the images were shared for self-serving reasons (e.g., to gain likes/shares/endorsements); these relationships were mediated by the extent to which viewers believed these images were sexualized and digitally modified. Further, results indicate that sexualized body-positive images can instigate sexual objectification of others and oneself. Those who viewed control images (vs. experimental body-positive images) produced significantly fewer sexually objectifying words about others and themselves. Implications for both viewers and producers (e.g., individuals, corporations) of body-positive imagery on social media are discussed in light of objectification theory.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Body Image. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Body Image, volume 38, in 2021.

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