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Should influencers be held responsible for teens' declining mental health?

Influencer Madison Beer is often criticized for perpetuating unattainable beauty standards for teen girls, but perhaps, this scrutiny isn't totally justified. – Photo by Madisonbeer / Instagram

Body dysmorphia among teenagers is rising and eating disorders are at a high, especially after the pandemic. Scrolling through their Instagram feeds and TikTok "For You" pages, teenage girls see picture after picture and video after video of what feels like impossibly beautiful women, thin and tanned with luscious locks and gorgeous smiles.

It’s easy to throw platitudes about the way girls who are, by the standards these women exist within, too big or too small or too fat or have crooked noses or gap teeth. “Those women are fake,” some would say. “They’re not real. No one looks like that.”

And as easy as it is to fictionalize them, it’s even easier to villainize them. Blame is shifted to these women with minuscule waists and even tinier pores, for promoting an unattainable idea of what someone’s body should look like.

But what if that’s just their body?

To be clear: This is not an impassioned defense of thinness or clear skin or blue-eyed white women with beachy blonde waves. They certainly don’t need it. But perceptions around what social media is supposed to do, and supposed to be, have become incredibly distorted in years past. We’re in the age of the influencer, regardless of whether we like it, and to some, the weight of a million teenage spirits should rest on their shoulders.

And frankly, it isn’t fair.

Singer Madison Beer came under fire this spring for a tearful video in which she lamented that she didn’t want to be considered “the beauty standard” and that it was unfair that fans and detractors alike considered her to be “unrealistic.”

Albeit, it can be incredibly difficult to sympathize with Beer — who, as a thin and indeed conventionally attractive white woman, was mourning the fact the people think she’s so pretty, especially in the midst of a pandemic and during national unrest against police brutality.

But without the context of the environment in which Beer posted the video, there’s a grain of truth to what she’s saying: Why is it toxic for someone with a body that’s thin and toned and influencer material to post a picture in a swimsuit on a beach if an average-sized woman can do it without issue? More importantly: Why is it brave or a statement for a fat woman to post herself in a swimsuit? Are all these women not doing the same thing?

The bottom line is there are patriarchal, unfair beauty standards (often ones that are every “-ist” and “-phobic”) placed on all women. While they might not affect each and every woman in the same measure, it exists for everyone. Can we blame someone for existing within a standard they didn’t create?

There’s the capital, socially, that comes with being what the masses (read: straight men) find attractive, which is often dubbed as "pretty privilege,” the benefit of being considered attractive and the benefit (proven) that comes with that in social and professional settings.

Of course, pretty privilege includes sexism and racism and ageism and fatphobia and transphobia and how those who care are considered pretty usually fit into a thin, cis, Western ideal.

But there isn’t a responsibility for people privileged in this sense to hide themselves or to stop existing in the same capacity on social media that other people do. The burden of making sure young women see themselves represented in film and television and in social media feeds is on executives and algorithms to make sure they see all body types as normal and healthy and capable of success.

We don’t need less thin, white, cis people on Instagram and TikTok and on runways. We need to reshape the standard of white supremacist, fatphobic and transphobic beauty to allow for transgender influencers, influencers of color and plus-size influencers.

Of course, it goes without saying that influencers should, and sometimes even do, disclose that their lifestyle is unattainable for young women. Oftentimes, their frames involve expert dietitians and workout regimens that someone living as the average person does could never complete.

This is without mentioning toxic diet teas and weight loss vitamins and waist trainers, all of which don’t work and promote eating disorders. But that’s not the same thing as someone thin merely existing as someone thin.

Teenage girls' mental health isn’t reliant on seeing what someone else’s version of beauty is — it’s seeing only that, and only that everywhere. Influencers who post their bodies as they exist aren’t the problem: The world making them famous is.

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