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

Updated February 01, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Sonya Bruner

The Media And Body Image

The relationship between the media and how we perceive our bodies has increased in power and strength 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.

The Effect Of Media On Body Image Starts Early

As children, we read and watch stories that tell us romantic heroes and heroines look a certain way. Popular cartoon females are thinned down with impossibly small waists, and the men 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.

As adolescents, the effect of the media on the perception of our bodies becomes even more detrimental. Adolescents are 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.

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While any person can struggle with body distortions because ofmedia consumption, young women are more likely to report these negative effects. Some young women fall into depression and other harmful behaviors if they feel they fall short of how women in the media are portrayed.

Consuming media, 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 promotesome 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 indicatejust how healthy or unhealthy our body image is. If we have a realistic and kind 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 greater negativity about ourselves. The language we use in our own head around our body 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 a further disconnect and damage the way they perceive themselves. It can especially add fuel to the flame for those already struggling with disordered eating. Says Dr. PhillippaDiedrichs, 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."

Women are especially susceptible to media’s influence as they deal with the objectification of not only celebrity bodies but also their own. Their selfies can be shared with their peers and simultaneously with thousands of people from all around the world. They may feel pressure to look and dress in a way that is culturally praised, to be 'liked,' 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 media and people in their life, often using celebrities and influencers as a baseline.

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It’s important to remember that depictions 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 their highlights too on their social media. Often, advertisements will show a distorted, highly-filtered portrayal of women 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 women see these images, it can be tempting or compulsive to compare themselves to these idolized women. 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 women, whether they are opting to engage in their own social media persona, may find themselves obsessing over parts of their body for acceptance, attention and even a chance to make money - just like the people they follow on social media.

This obsessive behavior can become self-destructive if it leads to a plethora of mental and body issues. Some of these 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.

The Media And Eating Disorders

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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 American women and men experience an eating disorder at least once in their lifetime. Seeing many women in media who are incredulously toned or thin can affect the way women 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 in an attempt to achieve the 'desired' body.

Mental Health America explains that social media can cause triggers for those with body dysmorphic disorder, although it does not directly cause it, It can aggravate symptoms. Social media can encourage a person to body shame themselves, compare themselves to others and create unnecessary competition, all of which can lead to an eating disorder.

A study by the University of Haifa also concluded that the more teenage girls used social media, the greater the risk of developing a negative body perception and an eating disorder.

There are also groups on social media who are pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia and support eating disorders. Hashtags such as 'thinspiration' and 'thinspo' are used to encourage efforts to become thinner, withadvice and tips circulated to suppress hunger and hide eating disorder behaviors. While many of these groups have been identified and taken down, it is hard to control due to the widespread nature of social media.

Preventative Actions Against The Negative Effects Of The Media

To build positive and realistic self-esteem, we can first 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 around image and your 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 ceasewatching TV that portrays women in a purely superficial way.

Instead, consider seeking out thoughtful, positive and enriching social media accounts, music, books and movies that will uplift and motivate you to be your best self. Role-models you can look up to who are confident, intelligent and healthy - people with substance who you would like to embody, can allow you to continue to consume media in a less harmful way.

It can also be helpful to view advertisements and your own thoughts critically. When you are thinking or saying something negative to yourself, ask yourself where this belief came from and the evidence for this belief. More often than not, you'll find those thoughts appeared because you saw someone in the media that affected how you felt about yourself.

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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 nice things about your body in the mirror or throughout the day. It may seem silly, but it can have a long-lasting impact when practiced often.  Using active language that reinforces the positive traits about yourself is also a powerful tool. Consider statements like "I feel healthy, and I am strong," and "I choose to eat well today," as these can reinforce constructive thinking and habits.

It is also a good idea to seek out the invaluable support of a trained therapist if your negative body perception becomes severe or you are struggling with an eating disorder. There are people out there who understand and want to help you come out on the other side stronger, healthier and the best version of yourself that you can be. BetterHelp offers one-on-one counseling online that is affordable, convenient and completely confidential.

A study has shown that within 5 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.

Seeking online treatment can be great, as it can feel more comfortable talking to someone over the phone or via video. It’s likely something you already do with friends. It can also be helpful, as it doesn’t break up your day like traveling to an office would. You can more easily tie over the advice and tips your therapist has into your daily life, as a result. You can hear from other people who have used BetterHelp to help recover from the negative effect of the media on their body image, whether that resulted in an eating disorder or low self-esteem.

“I have gone to several therapists on and off since I was 14, battling everything from anxiety, eating disorders, panic attacks, depression, and addiction. Honestly none of them has had the impact that Justin had on me in the few short weeks that I’ve been matched up with him. He’s made me feel like I can trust someone again and without judgment, I can tell his kindness is genuine. Using CBT treatment, I’m already seeing that I cope with a lot of issues in a more positive way or at least am more aware. I was days away from just giving up everything, but he truly shined a light in my life ... I’m not completely recovered but I know Im on the right path. I would highly recommend Justen as a therapist.”

“Susan is compassionate, understanding, and very easy to talk to, even about very difficult topics. She listens without judgment and helps me better understand myself and my relationships. She is great about pointing out my strengths and encouraging me to be kinder to myself, which has helped me develop my self esteem. I always feel heard and respected during our sessions. Susan is wonderful!”

Embrace And Empower Your Body

Not only are these actions in your control, but they are also steps you can take right here and now. We can strengthen a movement of self-affirming, body-positive and healthy women and men by first taking action in our own lives. By limiting your media exposure, seeking out role-models of substance and thinking critically about what is being portrayed to you in the media, you can begin to accept and love your body for what it is and not what you think it should be. But perhaps the best thing you can do to embrace your body is to adjust the way you talk to yourself; change starts with you, after all, and it's much easier to do so when you are your own best friend.


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