What Are Curated Imperfections—and How Do They Fit Into the Body Positivity Movement?
Here's why you might want to rethink some of those Instagram posts or TikTok videos.
If you use social media, you've likely seen the posts: Someone will share a video or photo that specifically highlights any imperfections they think they might have (think: a straight-sized woman showing belly rolls when she sits, or a famous model sharing a recent acne breakout).
Recently, the trend has taken off on TikTok, manifesting through a sound byte that says, "Bodies that look like this also look like this." At the beginning of each video, the TikTok user stands or sits as if they're posing for a camera ("Bodies that look like this..."), and then shares a second shot, this time of them slouching or pinching belly fat or doing something else that makes them appear "imperfect" in a way ("...also look like this").
Upon first glance, it might seem like a refreshingly healthy way to use social media, by highlighting the fact that bodies don't look photoshopped in real life. However, experts warn that these posts—which show what are known as "curated imperfections"—aren't rooted in true body positivity and can even be harmful. Here's how.
What exactly are curated imperfections?
Thanks to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, most of us spend a great deal of our time curating our lives for social media. We choose which vacation pictures to post, which selfies we think we look best in, which videos we think will get the most laughs—the list goes on.
When social media first became popular, users worked to hide any perceived "imperfections" in these posts. Now, they've started to showcase them—but only certain "flaws," Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, a psychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "Ironically, even at their 'worst' these curated images of imperfection still represent the best of their worst," Dr. Albers-Bowling says.
These little "flaws" are things social media users think others can relate to, but they're still carefully chosen moments of "imperfection." "The images of the imperfections are still staged and chosen," says Dr. Albers-Bowling. "They don't capture a true snapshot of people in their raw or real moments."
So why are these curated imperfections problematic?
For starters, it's never okay to label or allude to a part of anyone's body as being "imperfect" or "flawed," Chrissy King, writer and creator of The Body Liberation Project, which helps women create healthier relationships with their bodies, tells Health. "Bodies roll; they dimple. This is not a flaw; this is just what they are," King says. And even claiming to "embrace flaws" is the wrong way to look at it, since the body is never "flawed"—even when someone is in the process of losing weight or making lifestyle changes.
In addition to framing the natural body as an "imperfect" one, King says that this trend also shows people exaggerating those perceived flaws, for instance by hunching over dramatically to emphasize belly fat. This essentially allows straight-sized people to become a voice for those in bigger bodies, even though they're not part of that community, says King.
These curated imperfections can just add to the already unattainable standards of perfection, too—essentially making people (especially teenagers) feel that even their perceived flaws have to live up to a certain standard. "It's natural for teens to look to those around them for examples and role models," says Dr. Albers-Bowling. Before the rise of social media, this usually meant seeing real people in their everyday lives. But now, with social media communities, they see (and aspire to be like) people who look nothing like them, damaging the way they think about their own bodies. "Viewers often feel that [they] don't even come close to the 'imperfect' version they see on social media," says Dr. Albers-Bowling.
It's important to pay attention to how these images make you feel too, to understand why they're not exactly helpful. Dr. Albers-Bowling recommends contemplating these questions when you see curated imperfections on social media: "What does your gut say to you? Does it make you feel bad about yourself? Does it trigger negative behaviors?" Paying attention to how your body feels while scrolling through social media can help show you what a healthy relationship with those platforms looks like. It's an important skill for people of all ages (again, especially teenagers) to learn. "You can't control what [they] see, but you can teach them to think critically about these images," says Dr. Albers-Bowling.
Who are most harmed by these curated imperfections?
If you feel any distress at all after seeing these strategic attempts at body positivity, you're a victim of these posts. But it's worth noting that these carefully curated posts are mainly from young, white, straight-sized women without any apparent physical disabilities. "This is a huge problem," says King. Though anyone can fall victim to body image struggles, more privileged demographics can miss the larger point that the body positivity movement fights for. "If you're talking about how you accept your body without having the understanding to recognize [what it's like to live in a] Black body, trans body, fat body, that falls a little short," King says.
Dr. Albers-Bowling agrees: "When you look closely at the demographic of those who dare to put out the image of 'imperfections' on social media, they often come from a very narrow segment of the society and don't include marginalized or diverse communities." This can lead to further self-criticism and negativity for those who don't see themselves in the images portrayed.
It also takes up space in the body positivity conversation—space that wasn't necessarily intended for women who embody the feminine beauty ideal. King explains that when these women flood the body positivity conversation with curated imperfection posts, by contorting their bodies to make them appear different than they really are, a disservice is done to people in marginalized bodies for whom the body positivity movement was originally created.
So what can you do about these 'curated imperfection' posts?
Before you create any post that you consider to be body positive, ask yourself why you're doing it, King advises. "We need to step back [and ask]: Who is this really going to help?" she says. You can also consider the privilege that your image gives you by asking: Am I a person whose identity needs to be centered right now?
When creating media of any kind, it's important not to overstate parts of your body to try to fit into certain communities, King says, referring to those who try to accentuate body parts to appear bigger, smaller, or otherwise different than who they are. "Do not do these exaggerated poses to showcase more body fat when you don't have any," she says.
King adds that it's easy to jump on a bandwagon like the curated imperfections trend without considering the implications of it, explaining that while many might justify their posts by saying, "It's just TikTok," their actions do have consequences: "These things have a huge impact."
And if you come across one of these posts—and it makes you feel a certain way—Dr. Albers-Bowling recommends ignoring it as much as you can by scrolling past it (remember: interacting with them through likes or comments may make them show up on your page more often). If that doesn't help your mindset, take a minute to remind yourself that Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms are not reality—even when users try to make it seem that way. Comparing yourself (your body, your job, your life) to anything you see on social media platforms is never a good idea. "We set ourselves up for never feeling good enough," says Dr. Albers-Bowling.
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