The Online Communities
For the purpose of this research, five online communities were chosen to conduct netnography.
As the information found on the platforms was relevant for the research, it was decided to focus on many instead of a few, in this way the results will aim to show a broader picture of what women between 16 and 25 think about their body image on social media and how they feel about it.
Reddit is one of the biggest message boards for communities to post links, messages, questions, and to ask for advice among people all over the world. At first, one would find it a confusing and rather pointless website with no connections whatsoever, but when you put some time and effort into how it actually works, the website can be a very powerful resource. Members can comment, up and down vote messages within a thread, and these threads can consequently appear on the front- and popular page of Reddit, which are visited by hundreds and thousands of people every day (Mashable, 2013). As of November 2016 Reddit has approximately 234 million unique users, and 11.5 thousand active communities within the platform. Their monthly page view ranges from 6 to 8 million (Craig Smith, 2016).
The most important piece of information attained had to have an answer to the question:
“How do you feel about your body?”
Using keywords like “Poor body image”, “Thoughts about body”, “Body appreciation” and “Body positive advice” resulted in finding many threads about this topic. The two pages found on Reddit had 49 comments and 129 comments.
The first page was a Casual Conversation thread, meaning a user asked a simple question, in this case, “How do you feel about your body”. The participants then answered the question with few details and put out a general “casual” feeling.
The second page was dedicated to a rant (= speaking about a subject angrily) about how women are perceived and judged based on their appearance, thus causing body image issues among women. There was not exactly a question asked within this thread, the purpose of this rant was to get more people to talk about it and share their own opinion about it.
Reddit Ask Woman
Reddit Ask Woman’ is, as described by Reddit, “a window into the woman’s mind”. Ask women is a subreddit, like a nice forum. The discussions these subreddit has a clear focus.
Like Reddit, it is a message board for communities to post links, questions, discussion, and other social engagement material. However, since it is called “Ask Women”, all interactions are based on the female perspective. The website is mainly used by a large audience of female participants but men as well tend to join the discussion when it comes to issues such as feminism, abortions, relationships and in this case body image. Just like the Ask women community, there is an Ask Men community as well.
This discussion about body image 63 participants/comments and 347,144 readers.
The question asked in the forum was:
“Is anyone actually satisfied with their body?”
In the discussion, she asks the community what their own views are of their own bodies. The comments showcase the participants view on their own body describing their body perception and how it is influenced by social media and people around them.
Some talk about their mental barriers and perceptions and how that influences their own body image but others talk about their experiences and how they feel empowered by themselves and motivate others to do the same.
Quora is very much like Reddit in some ways, but the main idea of Quora is having an outlet to ask questions to the world wide web, to which people can answer. The main function of the website is a « question and answer platform ». According to Quora’s founder Adam D’angelo, Quora should be used as a collaborative information sharing and learning platform. It has a very stylish layout and many things are self-explanatory. Just like Reddit, you can also vote answers of people, and you can comment on others who have commented on your answer, however you cannot answer their comments back directly. Also, there is no down voting system, and users have the option to go anonymous, in case they want to confess something without having any traces back to them (Adam D’Angelo, 2014) . Quora is mostly active in Anglophone countries like the US, Canada, and the UK, but also where English is a de facto language such as India. The only country where English does not have an official status is in Germany. These are the top 6 countries in which Quora operates. The audience is mostly male and has a higher education profile. (Alexa, 2017) Quora has about 100 million unique visitors per month. (D’Angelo, 2016)
On Quora, the thread specifically directed towards body image. There were 17 comments, these comments were all very detailed and contained information about experiences of people who answered the following questions:
“What is the best advice for someone struggling with body image issues and eating disorders?” and “What’s it like to have body image issues?”
The reasoning behind both Reddit and Quora is because both websites are fairly similar in the way they work and what they offer. There are a lot of people on Quora asking for advice, and many people like to share their own experience and are open for discussion, while they also give advice about how they « survived » when they were in the same position as the one asking the question. It is important to have similar platforms to work with, in order to filter the right amount of information from each website. Using the covert archived method of researching is furthermore appropriate to these websites.
By using the method of netnography the website “7cups.com” was analyzed. The reason why it was chosen to analyze this particular website is that it is a forum, where people can talk anonymously and freely about every topic but also because there was found a discussion that could help answering the main research question. The website appeared dynamic and up-to-date, therefore it was selected for the research. Although it is similar to other online platforms, such as Reddit or Quora, it was useful for the purpose of the research.
The forum page presented an open question, that users had to fill it in:
“Looking at Social media often makes me feel _____ about my body image.”
This allowed to analyze the comments and gather information regarding how individuals perceive their body image on social media. It was not possible to identify the sex of the users that answered the open questions, but by analyzing the answers it was possible to notice that most of them were women, mostly of age between 16 and 25.
The open question was posted very recently, on February 22nd 2017, and was chosen also for the amount of comments that originated: a total of 74 comments were published under the post.
For this part of the analysis, the platform ‘Instagram’ was used for it. The reasoning behind this is because Instagram is a great tool for people to support each other. Women share pictures of themselves in order to create awareness for body positivity but also to empower and support others.
The community that I researched was the one that commented and participated in response to a picture on the account ‘effyourbeautystandards’. This is an account that was created by @tessholiday and is run by body positive people. On the account, there are pictures posted of others, and these pictures are meant to inspire and empower the plus size community. At the moment that I analyzed the data, the account has 5,761 posts and 343k followers.
The picture that was used was posted 2 weeks prior to the analysis and has 4,869 likes and 45 comments. It features a woman who had an eating disorder and who is now using her body to show that all the mean names are things of the past and her love for her body is the future.
The second page researched on Instagram was called “any. body_co” which is a page with a lot of followers and that gather many users together to discuss on body image perception.
Around the time of the analysis, the picture had 12.503 likes and 351 comments and the Instagram account had 74.900 followers. The Instagram account features two women who are best friends but completely different in body size and they are trying to stop body shaming and empower women to try and love their body no matter what size. In addition, the picture was posted one week ago, so the content of the messages is recent and updated.
The information is uniquely archive, meaning that the information was not asked but retrieved from the online platforms mentioned. The role as a researcher was covert, as there were not been interactions with the participants of the forum, but just observations and notations of their answers regarding the topic. In this way, the role of the researchers has never been revealed to the communities. Moreover, the conversations analyzed were already existing, meaning the researchers just went through them for the coding process.
In order to find the suitable keywords to gain insight on the topic and analyze the possible discussions on the web, a mind map was made. The mind map shows the different keywords that have been used, such as “social media”, “body perception” or “forum”. As the research proceeded, the main keyword used where “body image” and “social media”, since they summarize the main research question in detail.
To start the research and gain more insight on the topic, mind-maps were made. In this way, the different ideas and ways the research could go, have been visualized. By choosing the keywords ‘internet’, ‘body size’, ‘body perception’ and ‘target group’ the research question is supported and clearly summarized in detail. It is possible to find the mind maps in the Appendix.
While analyzing the various online platforms, it was possible to identify eleven coding subgroups: anger, shame, consciousness, disappointment, empowerment, insecurity, motivation, sadness, satisfaction, and undefined feeling. These subgroups clearly summarize the findings while using the method of netnography. It is possible to find a list of the coding labels, with an explanation of each code and key quotations, in the Appendix.
Table 1 – 7cups Forum
The results of the 7Cups forum show that a high amount of users (38) feels insecure regarding their body image when looking at social media, especially because it causes them a constant comparison with others.
An example is a quote from a user saying “I’m not beautiful enough. My photos are not as good as my friends are… I loose my confidence in this case and feel ugly and bad of myself”.
Another common feeling among the respondents of the forum is being disappointed (22) and sad (16). For example, a user-defined the feelings as “Depressed, because I see how happy everyone else is and don’t understand why I can’t be that happy too.” or “Like everyone lives a happy and perfect life but me.”
The overall results show a majority of negative responses, while the positive ones are present but did not score very high. Most of the comments show that the users do not like to see social media but they keep using them to stay in contact with their peers.
Table 2 – Instagram 1
The results of the Instagram results show that most of the comments made to the picture were empowering or motivating for either the women in the picture or the people who commented on it. A total of 22 people felt empowered by these pictures and responded to it. An example of such a comment would be as follows;
‘’Beautiful and powerful goddess. Don’t even put that behind you or on your back. Don’t let it touch you or penetrate you or invade your energy vortex. Use your strength and courage and unity with others to lift you and support you on this journey. Love to you. ’’.
A total of 6 people who felt motivated by or wanted to motivate the women in the picture. An example comment of a user is;
‘’Wow! Thank you for this. Bc I was feeling lk this. I can through this.’’
Overall, almost all of the comments were extremely positive or empowering in response to this picture. Out of the 44 comments, there were 2 negative ones.
Table 3 – Instagram 2
The results show that a large amount (18) were motivated by the post and decided to comment something positive and inspiring. Other than motivated the second highest code (13) was the empowered code which would be in line with the motivated one seeing as this means that people decided to leave a comment that was empowering for the women in the photo and for other reading their comment. An example of a quote in the highest scoring code was:
“You two are so beautiful🤗. Thank you for sharing this with us, and to make a difference!! You two make me feel happy with who am I because you two are happy with yourself! Much love❤”
However, there were some negative reactions making the angry code the highest (5) in that ranking and disappointed a close second (3). An example of the quotes in the angry code is the following:
“Somebody should go to the gym 😏”
All in all, the post caused more positive reactions than negatives, which shows that the general view of the users was open to the different sizes and kind of bodies on social media but also open to acceptance.
Table 4 – Reddit Ask Woman
39 out of the 63 comments were collected and classified. The figure showcases the used codes and their frequency. Out of the 39 analyzed comments, most were generally satisfied with their body, they weren’t particularly happy about it.
Some describe it as being 70 to 90% satisfied and the remaining percentage is for improvement. This concludes that the majority of the people participating were somewhat satisfied and most of them deal with insecurities.
Aside from the general satisfaction, there were some women who felt empowered by themselves. They decided to lose weight and eating healthy, they said that this process made them appreciate and love their body more. In the end, most “empowered” women explained that they used to have a love/hate relationship with their body but have now fully accepted themselves for who they are and what they look like. They encourage others not to only look at their physical attributes but love themselves for who you are as a person. One commenter quoted:
“your body is just the car you drive in”
Overall there was a pretty negative self-perception when it comes to body satisfaction. The media is the one to blame according to participants. Is distorts the view of women on their own body and what it’s supposed to look like according to societal standards.
Satisfaction can be seen as a positive approach, however in this discussion, it was mainly used in a negative context, as said before, satisfied but not happy leaving a lot of room for improvement.
Table 5 – Reddit and Quora
The graph portrays the results of this netnography in numbers and sentiment. The sentiment is the feeling that the author of the comments had towards the discussion, and the frequency tells us how many commenters felt the same. A total of 94 comments have been analyzed thoroughly, and the sentiment with the overall highest frequency is “insecurity”.
This concludes that many of the comments were from people who are insecure about their body or have once dealt with insecurity. The second most coded sentiment is sad, and also satisfied. For example, a user commented:
“I hate my body to the extent that it affects everything. I can’t walk into a room without thinking about it. 0% confidence”
Even though quite a few people were sad about their body or their weight, many were also satisfied with how they look and feel. Many spread positive feelings to the discussion and suggestions on how to feel beautiful despite the media standards:
However, when you compare the positive comments to the negative ones, one can notice that 60 of the 94 comments have a negative attitude towards their body image, meaning that the majority of youngsters deal with at least some kind of body image problem. The results have been outlined with a histogram below.
The overall results
By using the method of netnography on five different online platforms, it is possible to gather the final results. The results show a total of 358 comments, all from different accounts found on the internet. The histogram gathers all the comments together and displays the general perception that women have on the body image in general and while using social media. As it is possible to see, the most common feelings are generally the opposite: most women feel empowered (56) but also insecure (55).
As the literature review previously showed, on one hand, users feel empowered and motivated to change and to accept their bodies, while on the other hand, many women are still struggling and have difficulties accepting their bodies. More and more people are starting to accept their bodies and to be happy about their imperfections, which shows an improvement in the society. Although, many other women, as the analysis describes, are still struggling with their acceptance and feel insecure as their open their social media platforms.
As a consequence, and like the results of the netnography show, 46 people are satisfied with their body image and 38 people feel motivated, but another 35 feel disappointed and 31 sad.
In the overall, the mixed feelings show us an incongruence between women on the internet, with half having positive feelings regarding their body images and half negatives.
The Appendices (the coding and all of the mindmaps) of this research can be found by clicking here.