The internet says subliminal messaging will make you hot

A new wave of surreal YouTube videos say that 'subliminals' are the secret to reaching your aesthetic goals. Here's why you should be skeptical.

by Eve Upton-Clark
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28 July 2021, 7:00am

Imagery via YouTube

Demand for cosmetic intervention has gone up significantly over the course of the pandemic, fuelled by increased self-scrutiny, Zoom overexposure, and prolonged periods of isolation. It has been reported that filler treatments are up 75% from 2019 and Botox up 54%, with a parliamentary body image survey finding that 58% of people under 18 and 53% of adults said lockdown has damaged their view of their appearance. Social pressure for self-betterment has clearly infiltrated all aspects of our lives, with some foregoing the needles in favour of some more unconventional routes to reach their aesthetic goals. 

Videos promising "MANIFEST EXTREME PHYSICAL BEAUTY”, "powerful surreal beauty” and the “ULTIMATE BEAUTY & BODY COMBO” have been cropping up all over the internet, attracting up to millions of views each. The key to these miracle-fixes? Rather than going for a run or taking a trip up to Harley Street, these results are supposedly achieved from the comfort of your own home through a technique known as subliminal messaging. As one viewer commented, “at first I was like… mmm fixing my life with subliminals… as a JOKE… but bro.. I don’t think it’s a joke anymore”.

Subliminal messages are messages you can neither see nor hear. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Below the limits of normal perception they consist of images or sounds that slip past our mental radar, bypassing critical awareness and logical reasoning and embedding in the subconscious mind. These messages then work at sneakily influencing our behaviours, which consequently have a ripple effect on our lives. On YouTube and TikTok there is a deluge of spiritually-inclined life-hacks; a rabbit hole of manifestation tips and tricks and law of attraction affirmations. For the sceptics among us, the idea that you can hijack your life while doing the washing up sounds a lot like the plot to a budget sci-fi flick. But for others, they are a short-cut to their goals.

So how does it work? Our subconscious is, in theory, far more susceptible and open to change than our conscious mind, which typically puts up barriers, influenced by external sources, to certain information. With billions of bits of information coming at us every minute, the Reticular Activating System works as a filter in our brains to decide which bits of information are permitted into our conscious mind. The thoughts we let in are normally the ones that match our existing beliefs. Struggling financially? Keep failing in relationships? Unhappy with your appearance? The idea goes that you’ve created a blockage in your mind that will hinder you from making progress in these areas. The solution, then, may be to embrace subliminal messaging as an answer to your problems, and luckily, the internet is awash with videos to help you do it. 

During the pandemic, Ariana, 20, an actor from New York, was browsing YouTube when she stumbled into the world of subliminals. “I was feeling lost and really just had a strong urge to learn how to connect with life and myself more. I use subliminal messages for relaxation, self-love, self-esteem, confidence, cleansing my mind of old negative thought patterns, and getting in the energy of love and happiness.” Putting them on before she falls asleep, Ariana lets the video then play for 8-10 hours overnight. 

Janell, 31, a self-employed content creator from New Orleans, first started listening to subliminals three years ago. Her YouTube channel features a range of videos with titles including, “Become BEAUTIFUL OVERNIGHT subliminal” and “Extremely powerful weight loss subliminal”. In order to create the videos, she picks a topic, writes out a script with affirmations and specific details for the subconscious mind, then the auditory message is delivered hidden beneath another sound. “I use them for self-love, weight loss, releasing stress, increasing my energy, whatever I need mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually, I find a subliminal for it.”

Well, does it actually work? While older studies, such as one conducted in 1991 by the University of California, found that any positive gains from subliminal self-help audiotapes were most likely the result of placebo, more recent research has shown that our brain responds to subliminal messages in measurable ways, recording change in the activity levels in the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the insula (involved in conscious awareness).

In the mid-20th century, the subliminal famously captured popular attention when quick-flashing words began to be used during television programs to advertise consumer goods. For some, subliminal messages became synonymous with a form of dystopian mind control, manipulating our unconscious desires and altering our behaviours in the name of capitalism. Subliminal advertising was subsequently banned in 1958; however, its usage appears to have gained traction within the self-development space, with users supposedly harnessing its power to fast-track success or certain changes they want to make in their lives or selves. 

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, who has a Ph.D in neuroscience and is an applied neuroscience expert, believes the subject of the subliminal functions on two different paths: the academic route, which has been studied and proven to be a viable concept, and the popular notion of the subliminal, that contains limited academic research. “The big disconnect is that when it comes to subliminal messaging, we know that it can work for a couple of seconds and that it can affect your decision making, but it fades extremely quickly. That’s the debunking moment for the popular notion of subliminal messaging. You can still use it for inducing people into particular states of mind, but it doesn’t change your behaviour beyond that moment.”

With that in mind, a subsection of subliminal content claims to offer extreme and radical physical changes that predictably conform to the current beauty ideals, pushing for weight loss and promoting conventionally attractive features as desirable. With regard to its legitimacy, Ramsøy explains, “The thing is if you feel something works, for example when people feel more confident, they tend to stand more upright, they tend to smile more, and that alone makes you appear more attractive.  It's also an example of attention bias because you start to pay attention to the way people act towards you because now you expect people to be more positive. It becomes this kind of positive reinforcement loop.”

However, as with most internet trends, there is a problematic side. Psychotherapist Sophie Boss warns that “it's almost obvious in the culture we live in today that the more society tells people they need to look a certain way, this pressure impacts people’s well-being. But particularly with these subliminal messages, the idea that you can change your appearance just by watching these videos, it then adds another layer to the issue. Then not only do people feel bad about not looking a certain way but then they feel bad that they are not managing to achieve that look. Consequently, people feel that it is their fault which in itself can be more damaging.”

As a means of rewiring negative thought patterns and behaviours, subliminals may have their merit. Yet, research on their effects is varied and generally inconclusive, and with certain strands of subliminals risking encouraging the harmful chasing of appearance ideals, it seems that effort would be best placed on dispelling these beauty standards altogether. While the idea of psychologically-photoshopping your face may seem tempting to some, as with most things you find on the internet, take it with a pinch of salt.

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