• Paul Schlütter

Is Instagram use a detriment to the body image of powerlifters?

In this blog post, I will try to give you some insight into my thesis, how I decided to investigate body image in powerlifters, and what the results, despite their significant limitations, may help us learn about social media use in powerlifters.

The initial thought behind this project was simple: do people feel worse about their own bodies because they’ve just seen someone on Instagram lift more than they’re capable of? Without diving too much into it, here’s a quick breakdown of the main theories behind this:

In Festinger’s (1954) objectification theory, it is proposed that women are confronted with societal pressures that force them to create an external perspective of themselves and evaluate their worth solely based on the standards set by their social environment. This leads to internalisation of societal ideals pertaining to beauty, objectification, and a whole host of negative consequences that follow it. Note that men are not included in this model, despite increasing sexualisation of men in modern media in recent years.

According to sociocultural theory (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999) people experience body dissatisfaction because they are presented with hyperbolic body ideals by the media. These ideals are impossible to achieve, which in turn causes frustration and results in negative feelings about one’s body.

In both of these, media play a significant role – in recent times, social media platforms have been studied fairly extensively within this context. Generally speaking, conventional and social media use has been linked to a host of negative psychological outcomes. If you wish to delve further into that topic, you can find more details in chapters 2.1 and 2.2 in my thesis (read the full document here:

One less researched concept is that of contextual body image proposed by Loland (1999). Through qualitative studies with ski jumpers, soccer players, and bodybuilders, body image was found to be dependent on the context that these athletes were in. Their body image seemed to adapt in different environments. The simplest way I can put it: picture a powerlifter in the open weight class. While they likely feel positively about their body during training and at powerlifting meets, chances are they experience a range of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours relating to their body outside of those circumstances.

Body image itself can be defined in various ways. Some argue that it is comprised of one’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about the body (Grogan, 2008), while others divide it into three categories: cognitive, affective, and behavioural body image.

I decided to attempt to replicate a study by Fox and Vendemia (2016) in terms of design and measurement. People were given a 7-item questionnaire about emotions regarding their body (i.e. affective body image), then presented with a stimulus, followed by a repeat of the questionnaire.

Results were, in my eyes, extremely surprising. There was a small but significant improvement in affective body image in the participants (from 0.59 to 0.62, so a change of 0.04, with the scale ranging from -2.43 to 1.57). To be quite frank, I firmly believe that this is due to shoddy stimulus design. In trying to be scientific, I used the OpenPowerlifting database to create two fresh Instagram accounts, following the top 100 male and female IPF lifters respectively, ranked by their wilks. This lead to some less qualitatively effective stimuli in my opinion, e.g. showing some top female powerlifters benching only 60kg for reps. One participant, who I had the chance to chat to a few days after she had participated, said that seeing these elite powerlifters’ lifts not being too far from her own made her feel better about herself.

To be honest, I’m still quite torn on the topic. On one hand, most of the research into social media shows that it has significant adverse effects on a range of psychological factors. On the other, it appears that there is some correlation between social media use and improvement of affective body image. Unfortunately, making any causal inferences is impossible with the given data set, as there was no control group. I would love to delve further into the topic by examining lifters in the open weight classes and lowest weight classes, to see whether any difference could be found, as this would more significantly inform any applied sport psychological work with athletes in weight class sports in the future.

One thought I would like to leave you with: if you notice that you tend to compare yourself to others on social media, and that this may have a negative effect on your mental state, make a conscious decision to limit your social media use.

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