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In a hyper-connected and technological world, escaping messages about body image can be challenging. Between Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and other social media networks, individuals are often exposed to images of their peers, celebrities, and social media users worldwide. Social media can influence what people buy, what they wear, what workouts they try, and how they feel about themselves.
In some cases, the effect social media has on body image is negative. When people are curating their posts, using filters, and aiming to conform to beauty standards, it can seem easy to get caught up in social comparisons. For some, social media use leads to a negative body image or the development of body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders. If you believe you or someone you know has been impacted by social media use, looking at the research behind these impacts may be valuable.
Social Media And Body Image Statistics
It may be difficult to quantify how many people struggle with an eating disorder because some may be reluctant to seek help or talk to a doctor about their symptoms. In addition, when social media normalizes eating disorder symptoms, it can seem like one's mental health condition is normal behavior. However, current estimates show up to 30 million Americans may experience an eating disorder at some time in their lives, often during adolescence.
This number may rise as social media becomes more prevalent in the lives of people of all ages. Multiple studies have found a correlation between social media use and negative body image, including one study from the University of Haifa conducted in 2011. Their research found that the more time teenage girls spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to develop a negative body image.
In 2014, a similar Florida State University study looked at the relationship between Facebook use and body image, finding the same results. Since these studies were conducted, other apps have become more popular, with TikTok taking the forefront in the lives of young adults, teens, and children. A 2022 study found that TikTok was also a cause of low body image, primarily due to body comparison among women.
What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)?
One way social media can negatively impact body image is by contributing to the development of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Also referred to as body dysmorphia, this condition is characterized by persistent preoccupation with one's body image and imagined flaws.
The most common areas of concern for those with BDD are their hair, skin, nose, chest, and stomach (all of which can be artificially edited when posted on social media). While people with BDD may constantly be preoccupied with thoughts about their flaws, these perceived flaws may not be noticed by others or may not exist. Thus, those living with this condition often have a skewed perception of their appearance.
Individuals without BDD may also notice areas of their appearance they do not like. However, thoughts about one's flaws are invasive, obsessive, and constant for those with BDD. They often occur daily and persist for hours, which may cause a severe disturbance in daily functioning. BDD can also involve compulsive behaviors, such as checking one's appearance in the mirror, asking for reassurance about a physical trait, or attempting to hide a trait.
Environmental factors like peer pressure, bullying, and online media consumption may play a role in the development of the condition. In addition, biological factors can contribute to the condition, including genetic predisposition and malfunctioning serotonin production. Individuals are often first diagnosed with BDD between 12 and 13, though the condition can affect people of all ages. In the United States, approximately 2.5% of men and 2.2% of women struggle with body dysmorphia.
Is Body Dysmorphia An Eating Disorder?
Though BDD can share some symptoms with eating disorders, it is not classified as an eating disorder. This condition is classified as an obsessive and compulsive-related disorder in the DSM-5.
BDD may accompany an eating disorder if someone with the condition struggles with altering their diet to attempt to "improve" their physical appearance. People experiencing eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, often share the same thoughts about their body image and imperfections as those who live with BDD. However, BDD does not necessarily involve obsessions about weight and is more focused on physical features, such as the size of one's nose or the presence of acne.
How Is BDD Treated?
The first step in treating BDD is often discussing the concerns with a physician or mental health professional. A qualified clinician may be able to make an official diagnosis. After diagnosis, treatment may begin.
Therapy is often effective for treating BDD, eating disorders, and less severe body image challenges. Talk therapy has been proven effective in treating individuals with BDD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one therapy approach that has been proven successful. In some cases, medications have been proven effective in treating BDD due to the possible association between malfunctioning in serotonin production and the condition's onset. However, consult a doctor before starting, changing, or stopping a medication.
How Does Social Media Impact Body Image?
Consumers have been exposed to images of a socially perceived "ideal" body for decades in magazines, television, movies, and other forms of media. However, with the invention of social media, the opportunity for comparison has increased, and people of all ages can view images and videos of celebrities, influencers, and community members online, leading to an increase in body comparison. Below are a few ways social media has impacted body image since the beginning of time.
Discrepancies In Average Weight And Stereotypes
The media has negatively impacted body image and self-esteem since before the emergence of social media. Research dating back to the 1980s and 1990s found that as models, actresses, and pageant queens became slimmer, the perceived "ideal" body weight and size of women went down. As media has changed, the average weight of Americans has increased, which has created a growing discrepancy between stereotypes about body types and what people look like. This discrepancy has potentially contributed to increased eating disorder cases, low self-esteem, and poor body image.
The Diet Industry
The discrepancy between what individuals want to look like and what they look like positively affects the diet industry. Advertisements from the diet and beauty industries emphasize thinness and may lead women to believe their quality of life depends on their weight and size. Studies conducted in the early 1990s found that the number one wish among young girls aged 11 to 17 and middle-aged women was to lose weight and keep it off.
It may be apparent that media has negatively impacted body image throughout time. However, the effects may be more severe or widespread in the 21st century than in the 1980s and 1990s due to the prevalence of social media. In the past, people may have watched a few hours of television or flipped through a magazine when they returned home from work.
Diet ads are now available on social media platforms, and some companies designed to offer diet products may work with influencers to appear more trustworthy or social to potential clients. On platforms like TikTok, businesses can market products in the exact location where individuals post videos, making ads seem more personable to buyers.
In the present, multiple social media platforms are available to scroll through 24/7. Scrolling through Instagram or TikTok may influence individuals to question their bodies, with thousands of pictures and videos using filters and Photoshop. This change can be problematic for young people, who are often easily impressionable and exposed to the opinions, thoughts, and images of others.
In addition to pictures, harmful online communities promote unhealthy body image and dieting. For example, the "pro-ana" and "pro-mia" movements actively encourage social media users to adhere to the disordered eating patterns of anorexia and bulimia. These communities often post pictures of extremely thin celebrities and models as "thinspiration," inspiring social media users to restrict their diets until they achieve the unhealthy thinness portrayed in the photos.
These communities are dangerous and can damage one's self-esteem and body image. In addition to posting "thinspiration" photos, these communities often encourage users to adopt or continue their eating disorders and offer "support" for those who want to become thin or believe they are overweight.
However, fewer pro-ana and pro-mia communities are active in 2023 than in 2012-2018. As social media networks have cracked down on these communities, the public opinion of the "ideal" body has begun to change. Rather than the highly skinny stereotype, more people may consider the "perfect" body lean and muscular. However, while this view may be healthier than the thin trend of years past, it still sets an unrealistic standard.
In the present, more "fitspo" or fitness-inspiration accounts are popping up, outlining their diet and workout routines alongside photos of their muscular bodies. However, these photos may still set an unattainable standard for people who do not have the time or financial ability to adhere to these fitness plans or whose natural body type cannot achieve this muscular physique. Promoting "one ideal body type" fuels negative body image among social media users.
Are There Positive Impacts Of Social Media On Body Image?
Despite its flaws, social media may positively impact some people struggling with their body image. In addition to the harmful body standards present online, a "body positive" movement has arisen to counteract the message that there is "one ideal body type." Those involved in the body-positive movement may hashtag their photos so all social media users can search the "body positive" hashtag and see photos of people with all body types feeling confident in their skin.
Additionally, some users may tell their stories of eating disorder recovery, unlike the pro-ana and pro-mia accounts. People recovering from eating disorders telling their stories online can support viewers and shed light on the reality of living with an eating disorder, possibly dissuading young social media users who felt "inspired" by pro-eating disorder pages.
How To Find Support With Body Image Issues
If you have concerns regarding your body image, you are not alone. Your peers may be experiencing similar challenges, and many professionals specialize in treating body image and eating disorders. Working with a therapist or counselor can help you improve your body image and self-esteem or start your recovery from an eating disorder or BDD.
If you are most comfortable with support online, modern technology has paved the way for online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, which allow individuals to receive therapy from home. With an online platform, you can work with a provider online through phone, video, or live chat sessions. In addition, you can join their online worksheets, group sessions, and webinars for extra support.
Studies suggest that online counseling delivers benefits similar to traditional in-person counseling. The International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that "technology‐enhanced interventions offer multiple opportunities to improve care for eating disorders."
You can read some testimonials from others who have benefitted from BetterHelp’s online therapy services below.
“Dr. Baggs has helped keep me grounded and greatly assisted with my eating disorder and anxiety. She is a someone that definitely listens to what you specifically desire for help and does not force anything upon you. Great counselor.”
“I have been working with Carolyn for 6 months now, and have tremendously benefited from her counseling as I support my daughter for Anorexia. Anorexia is a very complex mind-body illness and the family can play a very important role in the recovery by educating ourselves and understanding her behavior. This allows me to use correct words with her, and watch by own behavior with her so I am supporting her in a healthy manner, and not enabling her illness further. Additionally, my own stress has been very difficult as I watch my sweet daughter suffer, so I had been in need of finding coping skills for myself. Carolyn's expertise, her very compassionate but clear guidelines and feedback to me have made be more confident and capable in dealing with this difficult illness. I am finding a lot of strength from her therapy, and most importantly I am handling my daughter better and can see the difference in my interactions with her. I am thankful to Carolyn for coming into my life when I needed someone to guide me through this. In addition to our weekly video chats, I am able to send her quick texts on the BetterHelp app if an issue arises and I need her thoughts, and Carolyn replies back very quickly with more tips to help me. I have recommended BetterHelp to friends as a source to a great therapist like Carolyn would not have been possible for me without this platform... while I also do this from the convenience of my time and home. Thank you Carolyn, and thank you BetterHelp for being here for me!”
If social media use contributes to body-image difficulties impacting your confidence or daily functioning, consider reaching out to a professional for support. An online or in-person therapist can guide you in self-love practices and ways to find a positive community online.
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