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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A picture says a thousand words... or does it? An investigation of body capital and embodied understandings of health and fitness on Instagram Toll, Meaghan


This research investigated the relationship between the processes of producing and consuming Instagram media and how these practices shape young women’s embodied understandings of fitness and health. There has been widespread anxiety within popular discourse about how young women use Instagram, especially in relation to health and fitness ideals, and this anxiety is often uncritically reflected in research. There have been relatively few studies that examine how people actually use social media in relation to health and fitness practices and even fewer that explore how young women use social media to make sense of their embodied health identities. This research goes some way towards filling this gap. This study filled those gaps by providing insight into how women produce, read, and experience Instagram content in relation to their own bodies, identities, and experiences across a myriad of social settings. Hence, this research examined meaning making at the intersection where young women simultaneously produce their own Instagram content, while also consuming the content of other users. Nine women who were aged 20-24 years and currently enrolled in kinesiology degrees at various Canadian universities were individually interviewed using semi-structured auto-driven photo elicitation techniques. The results of this research found that there is no simple explanation, rather the notion that Instagram use is complex, paradoxical and multi-layered serves as the most straightforward finding. This research moves Instagram use beyond moral panic discourse by highlighting that Instagram does not exist as only ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather it is a rich, layered, and nuanced space, whereby the outcomes of user experiences are influenced by unique engagements that depend upon a myriad of factors (lived experiences, mood, fitness level, and so on). The outcome of this study inspires critical thought about social media and its relationship to health behaviors, body image, and exercise habits. Furthermore, this research contributes to a range of literatures including critical media studies, physical cultural studies, and the sociology of health and illness and has several practical applications including informing media literacy and physical and health education curricula.

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