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Body image and de-influencing: how Gen Zs are wearing their hearts on their feeds

There’s a direct link between the ethical beliefs of Gen Z students and their online behaviours. This manifests in a number of ways. We unpack two of the most current: body neutrality and de-influencing.

Students spend an average of 4.8 hours on social media every day – that’s 67% of their total daily screen time. Like the lecture theatre, their accommodation or favourite pub, we need to look at social media platforms as destinations in their own right. But how do students behave in these spaces?

Ethics and values online

As a demographic made up of a majority of Gen Zs, today’s students are driven by ethics and values – from healthcare to sustainability, and including inequality in all forms.  Ethics and values affect their digital behaviours – but it’s not as clear cut as you might think. 

While just 10% of students say that they use social media for activism and political purposes, it’s less about what they’re doing on social, and more about how they do it. Platforms like TikTok – which serves scrollers deep sociopolitical messages, humorous memes and clothing ads in quick succession – have completely eroded the separation between topics. Social media exists as one continuous feed – and ethics permeate every like, comment and share.

Body neutrality: a case study in Gen Z ethics 

For a generation that leans heavily towards video and image-based social platforms – TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat top the list of preferred apps on Gen Zs’ phones – it goes without saying that body image is of paramount importance to a lot of young people online. 

On one hand, things are better. Gen Zs have pioneered a devil-may-care attitude to posting online that we’ve – quite frankly – never seen before. They happily take to the streets wearing pimple stickers, and they open up about everything from their stretch marks to their sexual health online. If you visit the TikTok comments section of any fashion brand that launches with a narrow size range, you’ll find plenty of calls to diversify the sizing. Today’s young people often talk a lot about body image – which can feel very much like body positivity. 

But tap on the veneer of body positivity, and you’ll find that it doesn’t take much to crack. Editing is still commonplace, and easily attainable, across the main apps. Filter use means that you’re never quite seeing the reality of someone’s face. A lot of “inclusive” bodies we’re shown are still white, and still thin; just marginally curvier than the beauty standard we’ve been fed for decades. Gen Zs are further along in challenging societal norms than any generation before them. But they’ve inherited decades of oppressive advertising thinly dressed as positivity. The openly fatphobic statements of the 90s and 00s have simply been redressed, for a new generation, as gut health and calorie deficits. And it’s hurting them just as much as it hurt their older siblings, and their parents, before them. 

Many have already clocked this – and are working hard to prevent the co-option of body positivity by more sinister voices. One promising avenue is body neutrality – a movement which works to depoliticise the body entirely, removing the societal requirement to love or hate it. Instead, champions of body neutrality encourage us to simply exist within our bodies without having an opinion of them – positive or negative. Many body neutrality advocates skew older than Gen Z, like Chrissy King and Jameela Jamil but there is scope – and a great need – for their wisdom to trickle down.



Gen Z’s constant pull towards authenticity has given rise to a new, and perhaps inevitable, reaction to influencing. A few months in, and de-influencing is still going strong – leading us to believe that it’s less of a trend, and more of a way of life. 

It’s easy to trace de-influencing back to Gen Zs ethics and values. The act of telling people not to buy something because it’s expensive, or overhyped, or because the brand sucks, feeds directly back into a desire to live more sustainably – something that 75% of Gen Z students strive to do. It also actively works against unnecessary purchases – and with 91% of students affected by the cost-of-living crisis (20% have had to forego essentials), this campaign against “must-have” products is refreshing and financially savvy. 

Since the first de-influencing sound went viral, the trend has evolved. Rather than just telling people not to buy stuff, creators are suggesting viable alternatives – whether they are cheaper, better quality, more ethically-sourced, or just actually worth the hype, it’s a great way to divert attention away from the heavy hitters – and elevate smaller businesses that are getting it right. 

The Gen Z students we surveyed say that they follow influencers – again, more on that in our latest report – but they certainly have a lot of thoughts about how those influencers should behave. When deciding to hit follow, the top thing that Gen Zs consider is whether the influencer is authentic and genuinely cares about what they promote. Rather than just parroting facts about the brand, Gen Zs want genuine opinions about the product, warts and all. That’s exactly what de-influencing encourages. Far from just telling people not to buy something, the creators under the hashtag are creating a space to discuss where spending should actually be funnelled – and, to take it deeper still, a space to discuss what it means to be a consumer. 

Critics have dismissed de-influencing as just influencing by a different name – but it is a significant moment in Gen Z internet culture. Why? Because it shows just how powerful Gen Z actually is. The influencer market is worth an estimated $21.1 billion dollars. But Gen Zs have proven that marketing to them via tried-and-tested routes isn’t a given – they’re happy to take an established concept and turn it on its head, deconstructing it one video at a time. 

What about brands? 

You might be thinking, “where do I fit into this?” – and it’s a question worth pondering. 81% of students say they follow brands on social media, and with 60% of that group saying they’ve unfollowed or blocked a brand on social, a follow is not for life. So, how can you tap into their world and match their ethical code – and more to the point, should you? 

There are lots of situations where brands have successfully hopped on trends – take Duolingo and Ryanair, for example. Young people are certainly here for this type of lighthearted content – but when it comes to more serious issues, they’d rather you steer clear. Just 7% of students say they want to see political or cause-driven content from brands – compared to 39% who want to see entertaining and funny content, or 47% who want to see behind-the-scenes depictions of your brand. While there’s no doubt that young people prize ethics from the brands they interact with, it can read shallow and virtue-signalling if you condense your hard work into a TikTok. 

The best way to appeal to Gen Zs’ values is to emulate them behind-the-scenes. Take the two examples in this article, for example. If you’re a clothing brand that hasn’t yet opted for inclusive sizing, then it won’t ring true if you shout about body positivity on Instagram, or pitch your products as “empowering”. Likewise, if the only thing you can say about your latest product is that it’s “new” and “viral”, you run the risk of landing in a de-influencing video. Give Gen Z something tangible, and they’ll keep coming back for more. Fob them off with hot air and empty promises, and you could be the recipient of a brutal takedown. 

Dive a little deeper into Gen Z students’ world via our latest report, Student Advertising: The Reimagined Playbook.