How did social media [e.g. Instagram] change the body image of Japanese youth?

January 1st 2021


With the rise of social media in society there was also a rise of a different kind of body ideal and beauty standard. In the 80ies and 90ies supermodels like Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford dictated the ideal of beauty but with the rise of social networks there was a power shift in this relationship. Social media has become a permanent factor of people’s lives which is why it will also have to have an influence on the perception of one’s body. This article is looking to prove that social media has become a deciding factor for the body ideal and image of the younger generation of Japanese. In order to do that I have spoken with six Japanese students whose ages range from 19 to 23, I have also conducted a short online survey and I have analyzed some of the most common attributes of a multimodal discourse happening on Instagram. I have decided to also include a comparison to the “Eating disorders and self-harm in Japanese culture and cultural expressions”-Essay by Gitte Marianne Hansen. In her essay she assumes that eating disorders, on which she mainly concentrates, are caused by the socio-cultural construction of femininity and gender in Japanese society. She uses the term ‘lifestyle’ to describe this socio-cultural influence on women who restrict their food intake in order to appeal to a certain ideal of women in Japanese society.

I do not want to argue against this gender based socio-cultural influence on the dieting and eating habits of Japanese women, rather I would like to offer a suggestion of how to broaden the perspective that was used, by not excluding gender but including a new and rising aspect. Firstly, with the rise of social media, especially photo-sharing networks, as they are purely visual driven and I argue, that visuals play the main role in influencing the consumer, there is a new factor that greatly influences the current youth and that is of their own social media presence and of the content they consume. Secondly, although Hansen only focuses on women as she sees the gender aspect as crucial, I think in today’s Japanese society the male role, that had been established for decades, is also challenged and thus I am also including the voices of male Japanese youth in my research.  There are many social networks that are being used by Japanese youth at this moment and analyzing all of them would certainly be interesting, but too much for a short essay such as this one, which is why this essay will concentrate on the photo-sharing community Instagram as it has risen in popularity in recent years.

The research I conducted aims to prove that young Japanese are influenced by body image in their own influence in social media as well as in the content they consume through. It also aims to see how social media changed (or might have changed) the Japanese ideal body. I am making this distinction because the changes in the broad society in regards to beauty standard and body ideal are only slowly changing and at this point do not seem to be as apparent as the gender aspect Hansen concentrates on.

As I conducted three different researches to support my theory, I will in the following shortly expand on the results of these researches. My first attempt of gathering information was an online survey. I asked questions such as: 1. How many hours a day do you usually spend on Instagram?; 2. How many followers do you have?; 3. How many accounts do you follow?; 4. How many of the accounts you follow are run by people you do not know personally?; 5. How many of those accounts do you use for inspiration when it comes to your own lifestyle?; 6. Have you ever considered dieting, working out or changing your clothes because of what you see online?; 7. How would you describe the beauty standard and body ideal you see on Instagram?

From these questions I was able to collect information on the habits of fifteen people who answered my questionnaire. The ages of the people who answered ranged from 18 to 25 and about 65% of the answers were from female participants. Of these female participants all of them spend an average of 2.4 hours on Instagram every day, they have an average of 240~410 followers and follow an average of 423~560 accounts; of these accounts they usually know about a third personally, while they use the rest as entertainment and inspiration. Solely inspirations are usually only about ten to twenty accounts, but most participants have stated that they regard the accounts of famous people as inspiration, too. Answers to my diet and workout question varied a little bit more: while some attributed their diet habits to the influence of social media, most are still strongly affected by the beauty ideal of the gender driven Japanese society.  The ideal face seems to be what they call ‘small’ with a higher nose bridge and big, double lidded eyelids. There seems to have been a bit of a change in attitude towards the face recently but the prevailing ideal is still this image. Makeup wise the trend goes to a natural makeup, although there seems to be a little bit of a western influence to a heavier and stronger makeup (this is not very mainstream). Body image wise the Japanese women that answered my questions preferred themselves to be thin and not very sporty. They would follow women who are exceptionally thin, such as Mizuhara Kiko, yet they also follow Naomi Watanabe, who is of less traditional beauty. According to them the idea of a healthy body has been more popular recently, and as such the idea of a more muscular body (which would still be considered exceptional thin by western standards).

The male participants of my survey had about the same amounts of followers (230~380) and they follow around 350~500 accounts. Of those who took my survey only two follow any sort account that would fall into my category of inspiration. Those accounts are of males who work out and share this type of workout lifestyle. Yet, the male participants of my survey also emphasize the importance of a slim body (arguably less extreme than some of the women). The ideal body image is supported by the idea, that a slim and thin body is healthier: “It is unhealthy to be fat, so I go on a diet sometimes”, is what one of my participants said. But there were also voices who spoke of workout as important: “I follow this person on Instagram because she is thin but she is not soft [as in she is muscular]”. Although the prevailing image of beauty is still that of a thin person, there seems to be a slight shift to the sporty type becoming more popular among younger people.

This impression is also supported by my interviews with Japanese friends of mine. I spoke with six of my friends. Here, I used similar questions but I also wanted to see how they act on the platform. I asked about their own content and most of them replied with pictures of friends and pictures of vacations, food, and pets. Further, I asked if they used Instagram for any sort of inspiration, but most of them did not do so actively, mostly unconsciously. Only when asked did they start thinking of whether or not they used these profiles as inspiration. When I asked them whether or not they saw themselves being influenced by the images they saw, most of them agreed to certain degree, but those varied: while some saw themselves strongly influenced by the images they saw, others only saw a slight influence. To the question “Do you feel like the body image represented on Instagram influences your own perception of self?” they firstly all answered with ‘No’ but after some follow up questions they all admitted that they disregard their own appearances due to comparisons drawn with people they found online. “I am not pretty, look at [this person, they are] beautiful.” This is what a female friend of mine said, showing me a picture on her phone on the instagram application. Here, I saw my point proven. I did the same test with a male friend of mine and he offered, although using different words, exactly the same way to prove to me, that a person he followed on instagram was more attractive than him. These patterns repeated themselves.

In the end, I found two groups of people: those who use Instagram in a very private kind of way to share memories; they post pictures of events rather than bodies and they use the social side of it to connect to friends; they do follow beauty driven people but mostly of the other gender; this group is less influenced by the body image portrayed online, yet also draw inspiration from it. When I analyzed the pictures my friend showed me I noticed, that three types of images were the most popular: those of from foreigners, those from people who do sports and those from very thin models.

The other group I found uses Instagram as a source of self-confidence (or would like to); they use the side to ‘show off’ their lives and bodies (or understand the site as a way to do this); they share selfies and seem to be prone to obsession in regards to looks and body; they follow accounts of both sexes in order to compare themselves to their own sex. These people validate themselves by the counts of the ‘likes’ their pictures get and they are heavily influenced by the beauty ideal that they find online. I noticed my friends choosing similar outfits as those of whom they follow and I also noticed them. When I asked my female friend about this, she answered: “This is in fashion right now, it makes you seem more toned.” According to her, the body images changes towards muscle instead of just thinness, at the same time the Japanese idea of muscle is not comparable to the western idea.   

I also found that women are more likely to fall into the second category; of the six people I spoke with (50:50) two women fall into the second category, while only one guy could be considered as part of it.

My age range (19-23) was not big enough to clearly tell a difference in age but I would like to argue, that younger people are more impressionable than older people. I also would like to add that according to the English abilities of my contestants I do see a difference in how they are influenced by what they see online, but I do not have enough information to back this claim off further. It does seem to make a difference in regards of people being more influenciable if they understand English better.

A third analysis I did was the analysis of the multimodal discourses on Instagram as this is originally my field of study. On Instagram we can find multimodal texts. The essence of multimodal texts is that at least two sign modalities are integrated structurally and functionally, or one and the same modality manifests itself in different media. For example, Film combines moving images, spoken language, music, noise, and language combines speech and gestures. Photo communities (such as Instagram) as a multimodal digital form of communication use  Text-image relations. Media in this context means material, man-made devices for the production, modification, storage, transmission or distribution of linguistic (and non-linguistic) signs. Social sharing community like Instagram have user generated content and this content of the images is (almost always) linked to written language. Therefore we have different forms of communication on Instagram 1. Image title / image description, 2. Image marker, 3. Places, 4. Hashtags and 5. Comments. This creates a complex form of communication that, to bring this little excourse back to my topic, bears great influence to its users. Through these different forms of communication the ideal body of the Japanese youth is being communicated and shared. 

All of this goes to show that there is more to the body image relation than just gender. I am not arguing against the idea, that gender plays a role in this perception. I am of the opinion that it plays a massive role in it, yet I also argue that by simply concentrating on the gender aspect one loses sight of the changes that are happening in the Japanese society due to social media.  

By also analysing Instagram’s multimodal discourses I was able to support my theory that next to gender social media is starting to play a bigger role in the perception of one’s self in Japanese society. Instagram is changing the body image to a more westernized ideal while keeping some of the gender-based ideals at the same time.

Mir wiegt das Herz so schwer
wie graue Wolken am Himmelszelt.
Und ich frag mich, wie’s wohl wär
in einer anderen, fremden Welt.

© Yana Schumacher