Artificial intelligence has its own idea of what the perfect human body should look like, according to a new study conducted by The Bulimia Project. The study examined how AI perceives the “ideal” body based on social media data, using AI-generated imaging tools such as Dall-E 2, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney.
The findings, discussed on The Bulimia Project’s website, revealed that the AI-generated images depicted widely “unrealistic” body structures. Of all the images analyzed, 40% portrayed muscular men and women with body types considered unrealistic—37% for women and 43% for men.
For women, the AI-generated images displayed a bias toward features such as blonde hair, brown eyes, and olive-toned skin. More than half (53%) of the images representing the “ideal body type” for women featured individuals with olive skin.
Similarly, the AI-generated images of men favored brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. Sixty-seven percent of the images representing the “ideal body type” for men featured brown hair, and 63% depicted individuals with olive skin. Additionally, 47% of the images for men included facial hair.
The study compared the social media-inspired images to those generated by AI, revealing that the former were more sexualized and displayed disproportionate body parts. The researchers speculated that social media algorithms, driven by user engagement, promoted unrealistic body types, which influenced AI’s renderings.
While the AI-generated images showed greater diversity in skin, hair, eye color, and ethnicity compared to social media-inspired images, they still depicted conventionally “fit” individuals.
The study aimed to address the impact of social media on children’s mental health, particularly concerning body image issues. However, experts emphasize that the idealization of body types on social media affects adults as well.
James Campigotto, a data journalist involved in the study, highlighted the potential negative impact of AI-generated images on individuals’ body image. Straying far from what is obtainable by the average person, these images can lead to feelings of inadequacy and impact self-image.
Campigotto also noted the lack of diversity in the social media-inspired renderings, indicating a need for more conversation around male body positivity. He highlighted that men face similar struggles regarding body image and the pressure to achieve a “perfect” physique.
AI expert Joe Toscano affirmed the study’s findings, attributing them to the internet’s preference for popular content. He emphasized that AI decisions are based on existing trends and indicators, rather than thoughtful reasoning.
Considering the potential threat to self-esteem and body image posed by AI, the study urges users to approach AI-generated content with caution. It’s crucial to recognize that AI is influenced by specific perspectives and biases. Instead of comparing oneself to social media influencers or unrealistic standards, individuals should focus on personal growth and progress.
Toscano warned that excessive AI usage could further exacerbate mental illness and body shame, as people compare themselves to unattainable standards showcased by the internet. He also highlighted the challenge of discerning between rendered and natural appearances in today’s world.
In conclusion, the study’s findings shed light on the distorted perception of the ideal human body portrayed by AI. Understanding the influence of AI and social media on body image is essential for promoting healthier perspectives and fostering self-acceptance.