Social Media Influencers and Unrealistic Expectations

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A social media influencer is a person who has online relationships and can influence others through creating content on the social web [1].There are different types of influencers on the Internet that generate content on various topics, such as travel and lifestyle. The platforms that influencers are on also vary, with influencers creating on many platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok. As part of their marketing budget, companies pay influencers to promote their products to their audience, making being an influencer a viable career option.

The ethics surrounding social media influencers and unrealistic expectations have been heavily debated in recent years. There has been a debate on the ethics of their authenticity and how they can convey their actual self to their audience while being able to profit off of their content. Influencers have to present a curated personality on their profile to remain marketable and make an income. Viewing unrealistic images of influencers' lives has caused mental health issues in social media users. Companies and influencers have tried to combat the problem of inauthenticity on social media by having campaigns that showcase unedited pictures [2].

History of Social Media Influencers

Social media can be thought of as the online spread of various forms of digital content. Using that definition, social media started in the 1980s and 1990s when the Internet was just beginning to become popular. In the 1990s, blogging was popular, which is where people log onto their private computers and post about different things, such as what they are feeling. [3]

With more people interested in connecting on the Internet, the first social media sites, Six Degrees and Friendster, were developed. Six degrees was created in May 1996 by Andrew Weinreich with the goal to connect people with a platform that had profiles, friend lists, and school affiliations. Six Degrees soon failed because not enough people frequently used the Internet [4]. Friendster, founded in 2002 by Johnathan Abrams, had the mission to make new global interactions between people while allowing old friends to reconnect. By early 2003, 3 million people had used Friendster, which caused scalability errors and the eventual replacement by more recent social media sites, such as Facebook. Those two first popular social media platforms then gave rise to more modern and widespread social media sites like Facebook and Snapchat [5].

People promoting products have been around way before the rise of the Internet. The development of widespread social media platforms made more people famous and influential. Social media sites, such as Instagram, started to have more users who had accounts with a lot of followers, who would interact with their posts by liking and commenting. This engagement is why companies started reaching out to people with a large following to promote their products [6]. Therefore, over time having a large follower base on social media sites became a well-paying career, and the term influencer was made.

Instagram Influencers

Instagram started out with users posting poor-quality photographs. The success of Instagram came from the innovation of combining a photo-sharing program with the ability to add filters to pictures. Having bad quality photos made the goal of Instagram to have people be authentic and show genuine photos that showcased small moments from their everyday life. Everyone’s candid posts started to look the same, so people began to shape their feed to be more unique [7]. When people began to create creative content, influencers were made. The one goal of many Instagram influencers is to make money to support themselves and continue producing content. In order to make a profit, influencers need to create posts that appeal to businesses so they will get paid to market their products. To get companies to reach out to them, influencers try to get a similar and targeted audience. Having a specific audience makes their posts more valuable because companies know the exact people who will see their ads. The result of trying to shape their audience is a feed of highly posed and planned photos. Therefore, in trying to make a suitable career on Instagram, influencers have to shape their personality to market themselves and are unable to be authentic [8].

Body Positive Influencers

Tess Holliday

Tess is a body-positive influencer with the Instagram account @effyourbeautystandards. She was a model in Europe and, in 2015, was the cover of People Magazine. On her social media accounts, she advocates for body positivity by telling her followers to love their body as it is. With the brand Penningtons, she created a size-inclusive clothing line. The fashion industry has a stigma against being over a specific size, so she tries to reverse that and be more size-inclusive [9]
"Tess Holliday's People's Magazine Cover"

Jessamyn Stanley

Jessamyn is an influencer that brings light to often overlooked minorities and writes books about her struggles about being a self-proclaimed black, fat, and queer yoga instructor. Her brand is about asking uncomfortable questions about race or body size that most people are too scared to ask. She also teaches people to love the parts of themselves that society tells them that they should be ashamed of. One important message that she tells her followers is to unfollow the accounts on social media that make them feel bad about themselves. She stresses how it is essential for her followers to love themselves and not feel pressure from toxic accounts. Jessamyn receives a lot of hate comments, but instead of internalizing them and letting them affect her, she realizes that the people writing the hate comments are sad about their own lives and taking out their insecurities on her. The book she wrote, Yoke, talks about how she constantly reminds herself to remain authentic on social media and not get tied up in comparing herself and creating a persona that only highlights her best, most presentable, aspects [10].

Aerie Real Campaign

In 2014, Aerie started a campaign that promoted body positivity by using a diverse range of body types for its marketing images that were authentic and not airbrushed. People used the hashtag “AerieReal” to post images of themselves on social media, showcasing all of their flaws to show how, like the models, they too had flaws but were still beautiful. This campaign made Aerie more successful, with their stock growing one hundred and fourteen percent. Meanwhile, a major competitor of Aerie, Victoria’s Secret, went from having 22 percent of the underwear and bra market to 20 percent [11]. This shift in the consumer market to a brand that highlights authenticity is because people support a brand showing more diverse body types and not a brand that only shows the ideal thin body type [12].

Travel Influencers

Travel Influencers are people with a large following on a social media platform that show themselves traveling to different places [13]. For example, Aspyn Ovard is an example of an influencer who rose to fame by showing herself traveling. As of January 2022, Aspyn has 2.2 million Instagram followers. In 2018, she posted multiple pictures and stories on Instagram of her going to various countries, including Italy, Puerto Rico, Japan, and Zambia [14]. A study conducted by Cameron Giannotti found that influencers posting travel photos were creating a false sense of the country they were visiting. She discovered that influencers tended just to take pictures in open and aesthetically pleasing places. The other parts of the country, such as the crowds or pollution, were purposely left out. The followers of these travel influencers were falsely led into believing that most of these countries were only filled with attractions and sites that fit the tourist gaze [15].

PR Packages

In the context of social media, PR packages are gifts that brands create with their products to give to various influencers. Often the packages are filled with collections that the brands are releasing or will be selling soon. The purpose of these packages is for influencers to show themselves using these products or film unboxing videos. Most PR Packages are given to influencers with entertainment channels instead of other types like music. This was because influencers with entertainment channels are more likely to do unboxing videos. Sometimes the influencer does not explicitly say that they revived these packages or products for free as part of a PR package [16]. This creates a false sense of reality where viewers are led to believe that the influencer has more money to buy the products they are showing.

Fitness Influencers

Fitness influencers post content related to diet, body image, and exercise. Many people are insecure and want to change their appearance, so these fitness influencers have a large audience of people who look up to them to change themselves physically. Only 16.4% of fitness influencers have fitness certifications, meaning most of the information online from these influencers is wrong and not backed up by scientific evidence. The diets and exercise routines that are portrayed to viewers as effective and proven ways to be healthier are made up by people with no credibility. The impacts of these fad diets and routines are very severe-children and young adults can become malnourished and have serious injuries. Also, for the rest of their lives, viewers could have a negative connotation with fitness or their overall option on food or themselves [17].

Another negative connotation around fitness influencers is the unrealistic body standard that they promote. Many of the images they show of themselves are taken at the best angles and even modified using a program to make them appear skinnier. Since only a couple of influencers are the face of the fitness industry, their unrealistic body type is what is being promoted to people as healthy and ideal. Most fitness accounts solely focus on outward appearance and do not focus on mental health to create and maintain a perfect body [18].

On the other hand, there have also been some positive benefits of fitness influencers - specifically during the covid pandemic when everything was shut down. When the gyms were shut down, many people were encouraged to stay home for their safety and not get covid. Fitness influencers then took to social media sites to show people that it is possible to be healthy while staying at home. At-home workouts and live fitness videos led by fitness influencers promoted on social media sites encouraged people to keep being active while staying indoors [19].

Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing is a billion-dollar industry where companies use their marketing budget to pay influencers to promote their products. Sixty-three percent of people in a study said that they trust influencers more than brands when it comes to what items they should buy. Consumers are more willing to listen to influencers with whom they identify than even celebrities because there is a disconnect between them. If a business pays a lot of money to promote one of their products, some influencers could take that brand deal and promote the product, regardless of whether they actually like or use the product. Having such a loyal fanbase is what makes influencers so appealing to businesses. Businesses then have to come up with ways to quantify the influencer to figure out how much they should pay them for their promotions. One way is through the influencer’s follower count because the more people that follow the influencer, the more people that will see and then eventually purchase what the influencer is promoting. The issue with this method is that influencers buy fake followers and count followers who are not engaged with their content—having a non-realistic representation of their influence, causing the companies to overpay. In 2019, companies lost about 1.3 billion dollars by overpaying influencers [20].

Ethical Concerns


On Instagram, sixty-eight percent of users are female, and fifty-nine percent of all users are between eighteen and twenty-nine [21]. Therefore, the majority of Instagram users are young and female. Compared to males and older people, young females are more impressionable to outside influences [22]. Since young females are the primary users of Instagram and are heavily influenced by what they view, seeing modified and faked social media posts give them a false impression of what they should look like and how their ideal life should be.

Photograph Modification

The first photograph manipulation program was created by Thomas Knoll in 1987. Thomas collaborated with his brother to create a company called Display that was then turned into Photoshop after a deal with Adobe [23]. From there, photo manipulation apps have become more widespread in society and have been available as easy-to-use apps like FaceTune or Photo Editor. In order to attract followers and gain popularity, influencers have to somewhat fit into the typical beauty standard so people will care and idolize them. Also, when the person has a large following, their life and even career revolve around likes. Having a large number of likes validates people and tells them that they fit into societal norms. Followers then look up to these influencers and get a false sense of what is considered beautiful and attractive and what is not. Many people turn to social media to show them what they should change about themselves and live up to an unrealistic standard. Since most of the posts that people see are photoshopped or modified, social media promotes an impossible standard of beauty that many people are influenced by and try to live up to [24].

Tana Mongeau is a social media influencer with about 5 million subscribers on Youtube and 5.7 million Instagram followers as of February 2022 [25] [26]. In November 2019, Tana posted a red carpet photo. Her followers were quick to pick up on the fact that she drastically changed her appearance in the photo and has a completely different look than what was posted of her on other sources online. She modified her face by making her jaw slimmer and her lips bigger. She never said anywhere on the photo she posted that it was modified, so when people viewed her post, there was no reason to doubt that the photo accurately represented how she looked [27].

Unhealthy Eating Habits

As of November 2020, there were about 1 billion YouTube views for food or drink videos made by kid influencers. Out of all of these videos, 90.34% contained unhealthy branded food or drinks. Companies that sell unhealthy items reached out to these kid influencers and used them to market and promote their products. Even if the influencer's diet was not solely junk food, it looked like the influencer mainly ate unhealthy food by just viewing their videos. Since these influencers' primary audience is children, promoting these unhealthy items caused the younger viewers to follow these unhealthy habits [28].

Eating Disorders and Influencers

Social media platforms such as YouTube, Tiktok, and Snapchat have been taken to court to testify about how their platforms cause harmful effects on children. One of the backlashes that these companies face is how they do not have enough regulations on the harmful content available to users, such as posts that promote eating disorders. Trends surrounding weight loss or tips on how to be skinnier are widely available on social media, and influencers use creative hashtags to promote their videos and not get them taken down by the algorithm. Even though social media platforms have sensors that give users the National Eating Disorders Association helpline after searching anorexia, that precaution does not fully stop social media platforms from promoting eating disorders. There are still posts and accounts that have been dedicated to eating disorder triggering information, such as constantly checking and comparing body images or showing daily food intake. For example, one trend was people showing a close-up waist walking video to a trendy song. This trend does not explicitly tell people to have an eating disorder but promotes being skinny by showcasing influencers with extremely thin body types. Influencers continue to make eating disorder videos because they generate a lot of traction, which in turn makes them money [29].

Mental Health and Influencers

When someone goes on a social media platform, they see many accounts showcasing glimpses of an ideal life. Seeing so many other seemingly perfect people confuses people’s social comparisons radar. They, in turn, are led to compare themselves to see if they are better looking, more intelligent, or more outgoing than the people they see online. This can take a mental toll on people who just occasionally scroll through social media posts. Influencers, whose job it is to create interesting and professional content on social media platforms, also can develop bad mental health [30]. People can also develop anxiety and depression from seeing other people posting pictures on social media platforms. People can experience the fear of missing out when they see others doing an activity online that they were not a part of. There is also the need for validation tied to social media, where people judge themselves based on the likes and comments they receive in relation to their peers.[31].

Influencers who have been working on social media for many years feel tied to a static and inauthentic version of themselves that they created to appeal to companies. The people who follow the influencer were interested in them because an aspect of their brand appealed to them, so changing an influencer’s brand would decrease their following. Influencers also have to be constantly on their phone, creating consent or interacting with their followers to maintain their relevance [32].


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