In this exclusive video, Charlotte Markey, PhD, professor of psychology and chair of the health sciences department at Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey, discusses the recent social media trend of posting cosmetic surgery videos on TikTok and Instagram and the potential negative affect this can have on body image, particularly in young people.
The following is a transcript of her remarks:
We see a lot more about cosmetic surgery on social media these days and more people admitting to getting different kinds of surgery and having different procedures done.
I think that this is sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s good that we see that people don’t look this way naturally, and so that’s progress in one sense. But then it’s also a step backwards, I think, in another sense, because it’s normalizing this idea that for all of us, we are an ongoing physical project, right? That there’s never going to be an end to the things that we can do to ourselves. When more and more people make that feel normal, then it’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong if you’re not jumping on that bandwagon.
Cosmetic surgery is usually a term that encompasses a really wide range of procedures, and so some may be relatively safe and easy — we’re talking about things more like injectables that are not permanent. Other surgeries are pretty real. They’re real surgeries, so there’s any risk that you would have with a real surgery in terms of things like complications due to anesthesia, scarring, bleeding, infection, and, of course, in very rare cases, even death.
I think from a body image researcher perspective, what I think about more often is the mental health of people who experience, especially, more invasive procedures, because people often expect to really emerge a different person, and that doesn’t happen. Body image is an inside job. When we change the outside, we don’t necessarily change the inside at all.
There’s some evidence to suggest that we can alter a particular part of our appearance — maybe something that’s always bothered us — and we may then become more satisfied with that particular part of our appearance, but we don’t necessarily become happier people. We don’t necessarily undergo this life transformation, and a lot of the messaging that we see, whether it be on social media or other forms of cultural messaging, is that we will experience a complete life transformation. So people are often sold on an idea that is really just a fairy tale.
Social media’s not going anywhere. It will evolve, it will change, the platforms will probably switch out every few years even, but it’s not going anywhere and it will continue to have an effect on our body image, and mental health more generally. I think we have to keep that context in mind when we’re focusing on, especially among young people, the potentially negative consequences of engaging with social media, because young people want to use social media and they will continue to use it and there are some negative consequences potentially in that.
Social media presents a lot of people living their best life, and that can be confusing to especially young teenagers who can’t necessarily discern what is real and what is artificial — what is for social media versus what is real life. That’s one concern.
But in some of my own research, I found that if young people are engaging with social media, especially young girls, and they’re just sharing pictures of their friends or their pets or connecting with family members and friends, this doesn’t seem to really have a negative body image consequence. It’s when young people are actually watching beauty tutorials or engaging in fitness trends or following “what I eat in a day”-type videos — this is the content that becomes problematic, and this is what leads to body image [issues] and even disordered eating. So that’s what we want to be on the lookout for.
In other words, we don’t have to necessarily throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we do need to be aware of what young people are doing online.
I think in educational settings, it can be really useful to spend some time on media literacy. If we’re going to teach anything about health, we have to appreciate that our kids are getting a lot of their health information from TikTok and Instagram and YouTube. They think that that information is just as good as anything they’re getting from their parents or in school.
If you’re an educator and you’re working with kids in a classroom environment, you can help kids start to understand how to decipher what is good versus bad health information. That’s more important than probably anything else you can teach them about health.
From a provider’s perspective, it’s really important to know that cosmetic surgery does not always improve body image. In fact, very often it doesn’t. If an individual has body dysmorphic disorder, cosmetic surgery is likely to make that worse. So I really think it’s important for providers to be responsible and to do even some really basic screening of any potential patients.