The Link Between Body Image And The Media And Its Damaging Effects

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams
Updated November 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

As we grow and develop, several different factors can affect our self-esteem and body image. Our parents, friends, and the media can all play a role in shaping how we feel about ourselves both inside and out. Building a healthy relationship with your body starts with understanding the link between body image and the media and recognizing the potentially harmful effects of it.

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The Link Between The Media And Body Image

The relationship between the media and how we perceive our bodies has become more apparent over the years, especially with the rise in social media users and "instant" applications like photo-enhancing and editing tools. 

The high number of filtered, distorted, and unrealistic images and advertisements we are exposed to on a daily basis constantly present certain physical standards and cultural ideas of what it means to be an ideal or beautiful person in this world. Studies have reported that the effect of social comparison through social media has a direct impact on self-esteem. Body image can have a strong connection to overall mental health.

The Effect Of Media On Body Image Starts Early

The link between body image and the media is often forged early in life. As children, we read and watch stories that tell us romantic heroes and heroines look a certain way. Popular cartoon characters are thinned down with impossibly small waists, while others are big and muscular. This can subconsciously embed a destructive belief around physical expectations that correlates thinness or muscularity and attractiveness to health, happiness, and importance. This can contribute to the start of body image issues in some children. 

As adolescents, the effect of the media on the perception of our bodies often becomes even more detrimental. Adolescents are usually more susceptible to the negative effects of the media as they experience bodily changes and brain development during puberty. These effects can be exaggerated with increased exposure to peer pressure online and through social media influencers. This can lead to confusion and negative effects on mental health, including self-identity and self-confidence.

Consuming content from media outlets, even peripherally through inescapable advertisements or online news, can be very dangerous for young people, especially those with low self-esteem. Media can trigger and promote harmful thoughts and encourage behaviors that can become unhealthy.

The Damaging Effects Of Media On Body Image

The way we perceive ourselves when we look in the mirror can indicate just how healthy or unhealthy our body image is. If we have a realistic and compassionate view of our size, shape, and appearance, we tend to view ourselves in a more positive and accepting light. If there is a discrepancy between the way we view ourselves and the reality of our body's appearance, we may feel the effects of negative body image. The language we use in our heads around our own bodies, or the bodies of others, can also indicate one’s self-esteem and body image.

Being exposed to a high amount of media can contribute to further disconnect and damage the way someone perceives themselves. It can especially add fuel to the flame for those already struggling with disordered eating. According to Dr. Phillippa Diedrichs, a senior researcher at the University of West of England's Centre for Appearance Research, "The more time spent on Facebook, the more likely people are to self-objectify themselves." This applies to all social media platforms. 

Anyone can be susceptible to the media’s influence as they deal with the objectification of not only celebrity bodies but also their own. They may feel pressure to look and dress in a way that is culturally praised, to be 'liked,' and to be glorified for beauty and body shape. This assumed standard is set through reinforcement of certain traits and characteristics that are praised or condemned by the media and people in their life, often using celebrities and influencers as a baseline.

It’s important to remember that social media images of celebrities’ or influencers’ lives are mostly the highlights— the days when they are made-up and dressed up. In the same way, people you know in real life likely post only their highlights on their social media. Your own social media is typically only made up of your own best moments. Often, advertisements will show a distorted, highly filtered portrayal of a model that is not true to what they look like in real life or representative of the general population. For example, the average fashion model is a size 0-4, but the average American woman is a size 12-14.

Often, when people see these images, it can be tempting to compare themselves to these idolized models. Most cameras now have filters that can instantly alter your face and body to enhance appearances, while some women opt to permanently or semi-permanently change their faces and bodies with cosmetic surgery. A carefully cultivated persona on social media means that people may find themselves obsessing over parts of their body for acceptance, attention, and even a chance to make money - just like the people that they follow on social media.

This obsessive behavior can become self-destructive if it leads to mental health and body image issues. Some of the potential dangers include low self-esteem and confidence, a decrease in social interactions, a sense of inadequacy and insecurity, obsessive compulsiveness, anxiety, and depression. It can deeply affect the health and quality of an individual's life and can lead to one of the most damaging effects of the media on the body: eating disorders.

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The Media And Eating Disorders

The media can aggravate health problems and fuel eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and body dysmorphia. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, up to 30 million Americans experience an eating disorder at least once in their lifetime. Seeing individuals in the media who are incredulously toned or thin can affect the way people perceive themselves, especially if they do not look like that. This can lead to limiting food intake as well as how hard and often they exercise to achieve their 'desired' body.

Mental Health America explains that social media can cause triggers for those with body dysmorphic disorder, and although it does not directly cause it, it can aggravate symptoms. Social media can lead a person to body shame themselves, compare themselves to others, and create unnecessary competition, all of which can lead to an disordered eating. A study by the University of Haifa concluded that the more teenage girls used social media, the greater the risk they had of developing a negative body perception and an eating disorder.

There are also trends on social media that tend to encourage eating disorders, whether knowingly or not. Hashtags such as 'thinspiration' and 'thinspo' are used to embolden people’s efforts to become thinner, with advice and tips circulated to suppress hunger and hide disordered eating habits. While many of these groups have been identified and taken down, it is hard to control content that encourages eating disorders due to the widespread nature of social media.

Preventative Actions Against The Negative Effects Of The Media

To build positive and realistic self-esteem, you can try to limit the amount of time spent watching TV, flipping through magazines, and going on social media. Consider deactivating your social media accounts from time to time and make “media detoxing” a monthly ritual. This can bring a return to the “reality” of the world and lead to less obsessive thoughts about your image and body.

If this is not an option, you can unfollow social media accounts that make you feel inadequate, unsubscribe from magazines that gossip about other people, and cease watching TV that portrays people in a purely superficial way. Avoid appearance related content that sets unrealistic expectations, and makes you feel worse about your own body. Instead, consider seeking out thoughtful, positive, and enriching social media accounts, music, books, and movies that will uplift and motivate you. Follow social media users that offer positive body talk, and feature body positive images from models that are a part of the body accepting community. Role models that are confident, intelligent, and have a healthy mindset – people with substance whom you would like to embody – can allow you to continue to consume media in a less damaging way.

It can also be helpful to assess advertisements and your own thoughts critically. When you are thinking or saying something negative to yourself, ask yourself where this belief came from and consider the evidence for this belief. Often, you'll find those thoughts appeared because you saw something in the media that affected how you felt about yourself. Healthy body size can be any size, but with the nonstop barrage of social media images it can be easy to start to hyperfocus on body weight as an indicator of worthiness. 

Focusing on building positive self-talk can boost your confidence and put things in perspective. Instead of saying something negative about your body, consider practicing saying positive things about your body in the mirror or throughout the day. You can use statements like "I feel healthy, and I am strong," and "I choose to eat well today," as these can reinforce constructive thinking and healthy habits.

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Online Therapy With BetterHelp

Managing issues with your body image or self-esteem can often be addressed by changing your habits and self-talk. However, there are times when the challenges you’re facing are deeply rooted and need a professional’s assistance. BetterHelp offers online counseling for a variety of problems, including eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem, and various kinds of mental health conditions. 

Admitting that you’re struggling with an eating disorder can be difficult. You may feel shameful or embarrassed to tell someone about what you’re going through behind closed doors. Online therapy allows you to connect with a licensed therapist who can remain unbiased and nonjudgmental while equipping you with the tools you need to heal, and begin to build a positive body image. 

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

One study showed that within five months of cognitive behavioral therapy, 42% of patients, compared to just 6% of the patients in the psychoanalytic therapy group, had stopped binge eating and purging. CBT is a form of therapy that is available online and has been shown to be just as effective as in-person treatments.

Takeaway

Though the media can have damaging effects on body image and self-esteem, you have power over how extensive that impact is. By limiting your media exposure, seeking out role models of substance, viewing positive body content and positive accounts that celebrate diverse body shapes, and thinking critically about what is being portrayed to you, you can begin to accept body positivity in your own life. Change starts with you, but you don’t have to do it alone. Reaching out to an online therapist may help you gain control over your body image with more ease and embrace yourself as you are.

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