Science Friday: Picture Perfect: Social media platforms and the body positivity movement 

Thanks to social media, the white picket fence has gone viral, morphing into superficial smiles and depictions of the American ideal, hiding the reality that people prefer not to document. While this can have a conformist impact on society, platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat also hold the powerful ability to amplify voices that have previously been underrepresented and stereotyped. In particular, individuals with disabilities are using social media to demystify their conditions and connect with people who might not otherwise be exposed to such perspectives. 

TW: suicide prevention // self harm I'm a little late on suicide prevention day probably because I've been debating about sharing my story. I still feel a sense of shame whenever I remember being lifted out of my wheelchair & pulled out of my apartment on a stretcher with superficial cuts on my wrists and being admitted to the hospital for suicidal ideation in an intoxicated state. This happened a few months ago & I hardly ever think about it now because I feel like I've grown a lot since then and thinking about it hurts. I never in a million years thoaught such a thing could happen to me. I've always prided myself on being logical and rationale. What was rationale about what was happening that night? Nothing. How could I let myself get there? I then realized after my experience that having these thoughts happen to a lot of people and it doesn't have to mean you want to die. These thoughts only seemed to enter my mind whenever I was drinking alcohol and was having a bad day & they started becoming more frequent until I ended up in the hospital about it. I didn't want to tell anyone in fear that people would look at me differently or pity me. There's such a stigma out there with mental health and suicide, but these are real struggle and these things can effect anyone at anytime in their life and it doesn't mean they're weak or any less of a person. Be there for your friends. Text them and check in. Be gentle with your words to strangers on the internet. You NEVER know what someone else is struggling with and virtually nobody knew I was struggling bc I was ashamed to speak up about it. I'm not ashamed anymore. I'm a strong ass person with such a strong network of love and support. I haven't had these thoughts since that night and hope I never get them again, but they'll always be a part of me. I want to be here & I want you to be here too 💕 I'm always here to listen if you need someone.

Instagram may be flooded with pictures painted in traditional American beauty standards, but other accounts are challenging such narrow-minded thinking. Alex Dacy (@wheelchair_rapunzel), known on social media as Wheelchair Rapunzel, was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a neuromuscular disorder that causes muscles to become weaker over time. Dacy has over 73 thousand followers on Instagram, with whom she shares not only the struggles of her life circumstances but also a beauty that defies categorization. Often posting suggestive photos, she seeks to encourage others to embrace the shape they are in and cease comparing all body types to one normalized standard. 

Unfortunately, Dacy has faced roadblocks in her journey to spread body positivity. Instagram has removed several photos where she has posed in lingerie, even though they do not violate any of Instagram’s nudity laws and there are many photos just like it featuring people without disabilities that Instagram has no problem with. However, rather than comply with the platform’s ableist policy, she has exposed Instagram’s actions and used them to educate others. She notes that “it’s more than just a photo. It ties directly into a violation of my human rights… I deserve the right for my body to be celebrated as much as anyone else on Instagram… I deserve to exist.”  

Dacy is not the only influencer spreading positive messages in an arena commonly laced with toxic ideals. Jono Lancaster (@jonolanc), an influencer from West Yorkshire with over 149,000 Instagram followers, is a role model for thousands of children with facial deformities. Lancaster, who has a genetic disorder called Treacher Collins syndrome that impacts the bones of the face, was abandoned by his mother as a baby due to his outward appearance. However, Lancaster has used his story to inspire many people going through similar struggles. Lancaster is open about his past battle with depression and current blessings in his life, giving others the hope that he wishes someone would had given him as a teenager. According to Lancaster, “If someone had said ‘this is me, my wife, my job’ to me when I was younger it would have helped massively.”

Voices such as Dacy’s and Lancaster’s not only resonate with populations that often feel alone and misunderstood, but also help those without such struggles learn how to best support those with disabilities and stop ostracizing groups that are not the tiniest bit inferior to or more taboo than anyone else.

Instead of only seeing the negative aspects of social media, it is important to recognize its power for positive social change. Rather than simply following celebrities and friends, we should follow those with different walks of life and learn how to best love those with similar struggles. Such accounts often provide sage advice on how to talk to people with certain disabilities and what phrases can come across as offensive that might seem harmless to someone who has not been raised under microaggressions and ableism.

Many of these influencers are also political activists, highlighting policy that impacts people with disabilities and violates basic human rights. For example, Dacy frequently exposes the Trump Administration’s discrimination towards people with disabilities, protesting against regulations that, for example, might make immigrants with disabilities less likely to be granted U.S. citizenship. 

We should not wait for people to directly walk into our lives before caring about them. As human beings, we are obligated to look up from our own paths, learn about others’ walks and join them through the space that separates us. Thanks to social media, that space is not that large at all. 


Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at katherine.lee@uconn.edu.