Social media is making an old problem worse: Our obsession with physical beauty. There is an answer though, and it is even older: spiritual beauty.
Shortly before Christmas, The Wall Street Journal reported on a scandal.
“I felt like I had to fight to be considered pretty or even visible,” one teenaged girl told Facebook researchers about her Instagram account, according to the paper.
“I feel like I am too big and not pretty enough,” said another. “It makes me feel insecure about my body even though I know I am skinny.”
Decades ago, tobacco companies were sued for hiding information about the harm their products cause. Now, Instagram’s parent company Meta (formerly Facebook) seemed guilty of the same thing.
The paper cited slide presentations in 2019 and 2020 presented by the company internally, that said for 1 in 3 teen girls with body image problems, Instagram made the problem worse.
“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
“For some people it might be tempting to dismiss this as teen girls being sad,” said internet researcher Jean Twenge. But “we’re looking at clinical-level depression that requires treatment. We’re talking about self-harm that lands people in the ER.”
The company knew that, too. Its own research said 13% of British users and 6% of American users with suicidal thoughts traced their issues to Instagram, said the report.
Why does Instagram have this devastating effect?
In my class at Benedictine College we have been studying what scholar Marshall MacLuhan meant by his famous phrase “The media is the message.” He argued that the way information is delivered is just as important as the message itself. Thus, the words “I love you” take on different meanings when they are written in a letter, texted, or spoken by a man to a woman while he drops to one knee.
It’s easy to see what “message” is inherent in each social media method. Facebook says, “Like me,” with its button asking for just that. Whatever else you say on Facebook, you are also asking for “Likes.” TikTok says “Watch me!” It is the online platform equivalent of kids on a playground trying to get attention with their stunts. Twitter says “My opinion matters!”
Instagram, which is image-based and relies a lot on the popularity of celebrity accounts and asks for “followers,” says, “Notice my beauty.”
But that can lead to a terrible mistake about beauty.
In real life, we are not beautiful because of the way we look; we look beautiful because of the way we are.
A priest once pointed out to me that Mother Teresa was, by celebrity beauty standards, perhaps the least “pretty” famous woman in the world. But nobody thought of her that way. Everyone who met her said she was the most beautiful woman in the world — because she had spent a lifetime conforming her soul to God’s standards of beauty, not conforming her body to human standards of beauty.
Beauty works this way because our soul and body are one. “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body,” says the Catechism. “[S]pirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.”
That means that the way to become beautiful is from the inside out.
Songs have always long acknowledged how this works.
Older generations learned it from Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful To Me,” and Billy Joel’s “I Love You Just the Way You Are.”
Younger generations can learn it from One Direction, who sang, “You don’t know you’re beautiful,” and added, “That’s what makes you beautiful.”
They hear it when Taylor Swift sings about how her mom’s kindness and attentiveness to her convinced her of the truth many of us discovered about our own moms: “You’re the prettiest lady in the whole wide world.”
Ed Sheeran sings about it when he describes his wife-to-be’s dedication to him by saying he found a love to carry “my secrets” and “children of our own.” ”When you said you looked a mess, I whispered underneath my breath … you look perfect.”
This is the message we can teach teen girls.
You can never look like a celebrity, but you can be even more beautiful — through humility, kindness, sacrifice, and commitment. And what’s the “medium” that carries that “message”? The sacraments, prayer, and service.
They are guaranteed to make you beautiful in the only way that matters.