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Was that selfie edited? Why it matters for female viewers

It is surprising that many people edit their selfies on Instagram and other social media sites to improve their appearance. A new study shows that when women believed selfies of thin and sexualized women had been edited, viewing these images had fewer negative impacts on any aspect of their mental health.

Many studies have shown that looking at thin and sexualized images of models or other women can lead to a higher value placed on being slim — a line of thinking called thin ideal internalization. This internalization, in turn, can lead to eating disorders or other psychological problems. But this study showed that women were less likely to internalize the thin ideal if they thought the photos they viewed were being edited.

The study also found that participants rated women negatively for sharing edited photos of themselves online. In addition, the participants rated the women who had shared the thin, sexualized images more negatively when they thought the women were equals rather than models.

The survey involved 360 female college students who were told the survey was designed to determine how people evaluate images that appear on popular social media sites such as Instagram. They all viewed the same 45 selfies, taken from public Instagram accounts, of thin women in revealing clothes. Some photos had icons, posted by the researchers, indicating that the image was edited in Photoshop and/or contained an Instagram filter.

Half of the women were told the images were of other students at their college, while the others were told the images depicted New York City models. And half of each of these groups saw collections in which nearly all photos were marked as edited. The others saw collections with only a few photos labeled as edited.

All participants then completed a number of different measures, including one on a thin ideal internalization. This asked how much they agreed with statements like “Thin women are more attractive than other women.”

The results showed that the more participants experienced the photos being edited, the less they internalized the thin ideal. As expected, participants were more likely to believe that the photos marked as edited had been altered. But they also believed that many of the untagged photos were edited.

The more viewers thought the selfies were being modified, the more they thought the women were taking their photos to show off, make others jealous and brag, the results showed. Participants also rated the women with edited photos as less intelligent and less honest. And participants gave more severe evaluations to their peers than to models.