A few years ago, I tried what was then known as the “A4 paper challenge” on social media, where girls place an A4-sized piece of paper on their waist.
If the paper covers the entire waist, you have “won” this challenge. Believed to have originated in China, thousands took part in this viral trend that took the social media world by storm.
I remember trying this challenge from the age of 13 and feeling a sense of satisfaction when I was able to complete the challenge. Like many others, I took a photo of this achievement for fun and posted the result on social media, feeling proud of this achievement.
A few years later, when I was 16, I tried again.
To my utter dismay, I failed the challenge. My waist peeked out from behind the A4 paper – which is 21cm wide. I didn’t take any photos this time.
I remember what it was like to be a teenager, desperate to fit in with their peers and jump on cool trends.
But thanks to social media, such trends are having an outsized impact on the teenage experience these days, influencing adaptable girls into thinking they need to be zero waist size in order to fit in.
I remember being embarrassed at the time that I wasn’t the waist size I was when I was 13. And after that for a while I felt like I needed to lose weight to meet that standard of beauty since so many others on social media were able to match it.
Back then, many teenagers like me didn’t realize that striving for a waist measurement of less than 8.3 inches is unhealthy and could potentially lead to health problems like anorexia.
It was reported in the news at the time that this particular challenge damages young girls’ self-esteem and potentially leads to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
However, the A4 Paper Challenge was neither the first nor the last social media trend to force the “thinner is beautiful” ideal on young people.
NO MORE CAREFUL FUN
It still baffles me to this day how what my teenage friends and I originally used as a fun and light-hearted platform to keep each other up to date on social media somehow turned into a popularity contest built on harmful standards and deception.
For one thing, there is an urgent need for more diversity in the social media we use.
However, some social media platforms work by putting “traditionally attractive” people front and center.
I’ve seen TikTok being so widely embraced by my peers during the 2020 pandemic and boosting the careers of many female influencers like Charli d’Amelio, Bella Poarch and Addison Rae.
They all have something in common – they are three young, fair-skinned and thin girls who the Internet ascribes to the “right” body proportions.
It has been said that social media platforms rely on the appeal of such influencers to target the masses so that more people would want to use their services.
But as cliche as that sounds, I believe representation is important. It’s hard to appreciate what you look like when everyone in the spotlight looks completely different from you.
It’s also no secret that social media is a pinnacle of reality. Filters are used to mask physical imperfections, remove pimples, or finish muffin tops.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Just log out or delete your Instagram or TikTok accounts forever, as some parents might tell their kids.
So did some of my friends, or at least to limit their exposure to platforms that could become harmful to their well-being.
But is it a viable solution for a modern society increasingly shifting online? Being popular on social media can be a job in itself, with influencers bringing in even bigger paychecks than most nine-to-five jobs.
My generation peers also rely on social media as an important way to interact socially, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
I wish a solution that can alleviate teens’ body anxiety would come from the social media platforms themselves.
However, I was disappointed to come across reports showing that social media companies are already aware of the negative impact their services are having on their younger users.
Last year, The Wall Street Journal wrote about how researchers at Instagram, owned by Meta, had found serious issues with how their platform was exacerbating body image issues.
Amazingly, their researchers also found that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of UK users and 6 percent of American users attributed the desire to commit suicide to Instagram.
A Singapore study by Milieu Insight in August also found that one in six adults here is at risk of body image anxiety, while those who spend more than three hours a day on TikTok and Instagram are at highest risk .
I believe these companies have a responsibility to intervene. Their behavior matters, too: they can’t just throw hashtags about self-love and body-acceptance and then sweep the issue under the rug.
Social media has drowned a generation of teenagers in a quagmire of self-doubt and self-esteem issues, while corporations capitalize on our insecurities.
Certainly more needs to be done to help today’s teenagers regain their confidence and to break the cycle so that future generations are spared such online harm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jillian Lau, 19, is studying Communications and Media Management at Temasek Polytechnic and is no stranger to the impact social media is having on her generation