What Everyone Should Know About Social Media And Body Image
Updated May 04, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Avia James
In today's hyper-connected world, it can be hard to escape messages about body image. Between Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and countless other social media networks, people are constantly exposed to images of their peers, celebrities, and social media users from around the world. Social media can influence what people buy, what they wear, what workouts they try, and most importantly, how they feel about themselves.
Unfortunately, the effect that social media has on body image is typically not positive. When everyone is posting only their most attractive and curated snapshots, it is easy to get caught up in social comparisons. Not only can social media lead someone to have a negative body image, but for some, it can even contribute to the development of body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders.
Social Media And Body Image Statistics
It's hard to quantify how many people are struggling with an eating disorder because many are reluctant to seek help or willing to talk to a doctor about their condition. Nevertheless, it is estimated that up to 30 million Americans will experience an eating disorder at some time in their lives, many in their teenage years.
This number may rise as social media becomes more prevalent in the lives of people of all ages. Multiple studies over the years 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 negative body image. In 2014, a similar Florida State University study had the same findings regarding the relationship between Facebook use and body image. The results are even more troubling when you consider the rise in popularity of Snapchat and Instagram in the years since these studies were conducted. Now, there are numerous social media platforms for people to spend their time on, potentially leading to an even more severe negative impact on body image.
What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)?
One way that social media can negatively impact body image is by contributing to the development of BDD. Also referred to as body dysmorphia, this is a disorder 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 are constantly thinking about their flaws, in reality, the flaws are typically very minor or nonexistent. Those who are living with this condition develop a skewed perception of what they look like.
Many people have things about their appearance that they do not like, but for those with BDD, thoughts about one's flaws are invasive. They often occur daily and persist for hours, which may cause a serious disturbance in daily functioning.
It is unclear what causes BDD, but it is believed that environmental factors like peer pressure, bullying, and online media consumption play a role in the development of the condition. Other biological factors can contribute to the condition as well, and may include genetic predisposition and malfunctioning serotonin production. Most people begin to experience BDD between the ages of 12 to 13, though the condition can affect people of all ages. In the United States, approximately 2.5% of males and 2.2% of females struggle with body dysmorphia.
Is BDD an eating disorder?
Though BDD shares many characteristics with eating disorders, it is not classified as one. BDD can, however, evolve into an eating disorder if someone with BDD decides to severely alter their diet in an attempt to improve their physical appearance. People who are experiencing eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, often share the same feelings about their body image and imperfections as those who live with BDD.
How Is BDD treated?
The first step in treating BDD is by discussing the concerns and fears with a physician or a mental health professional. A qualified clinician will be able to make an official diagnosis.
The next step is treatment. Therapy is very effective for treating BDD, as well as eating disorders and less-severe body image issues. Talk therapy has been shown to be very effective for treating individuals with BDD. Cognitive behavioral therapy, is one therapy approach that has been proven successful in treating BDD. In some cases, antidepressant medications as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have been found to be effective for treating BDD, due to the possible association between malfunctioning in serotonin production and the onset of the condition.
How Does Social Media Impact Body Image?
Consumers have been exposed to images of the "ideal" body for decades − in magazines, television, movies, and other forms of media. But now, the opportunity for comparison is endless and people of all ages are viewing these "perfect" images from millions of others online, rather than just the people around them, or actors and actresses on TV shows.
This is not to say that the media did not negatively impact body image and self-esteem 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, respectively. More recently, the average weight of Americans has been increasing, which has created a growing discrepancy between the ideal body and the average body. This discrepancy has contributed to increase in eating disorders cases, low self-esteem, and poor body image.
The discrepancy between what men and women wanted to look like and what they actually looked like, positively affected the diet industry. Advertisements from both the diet and beauty industries emphasized thinness and, subsequently, led many women to feel that their quality of life was dependent on their weight and size. Studies conducted in the early 1990s found that the number one wish among both young girls age 11 to 17 and middle-aged women was to be able to lose weight and keep it off.
It is apparent that media negatively impacting body image is not a new problem, but the effects may be more severe or widespread today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s due to the prevalence of social media in our daily lives. In the past, people would perhaps watch a few hours of television or flip through a magazine when they returned home from work. Nowadays, multiple social media platforms are available at our fingertips 24/7. Simply scrolling through Instagram can make almost anyone question their body and life, with thousands of pictures (likely photoshopped) of models and acquaintances vacationing on the beach filling the social network at all times. This is especially problematic for young people, who are easily impressionable and are constantly exposed, now more than ever, to the opinions, thoughts, and images of others.
This is not the only way that social media can impact body image. In addition to pictures, many harmful communities have blossomed online that 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" − the inspiration for social media users to restrict their diets until they achieve the unhealthy thinness portrayed in the photos.
These communities are extremely dangerous and can be very damaging to one's self-esteem and body image. Often, in addition to posting "thinspiration" photos, these communities also encourage users to adopt or continue their eating disorders and offer "support" for those who want to become extremely thin or feel that they are overweight, whether or not it's true.
Thankfully, there are fewer pro-ana and pro-mia communities active today than there were a few years ago. As social media networks have cracked down on these communities, the public opinion of the "ideal" body has begun to change. Rather than the extremely skinny ideal, today most people consider the "perfect" body to be lean and muscular. While this is a healthier view than the very-thin trend of years past, it still sets an unrealistic standard. Now, more and more "fitspo," or fitness-inspiration accounts are popping up, outlining their diet and workout routines alongside photos of their muscular bodies. However, this still sets an unattainable standard for many people who do not have the time or financial ability to adhere to these fitness plans, or whose natural body type is just not able to achieve this muscular physique. While "fitspo" is a step in the right direction from "thinspo," it still promotes an "ideal" body type that is not attainable for many people, and thus fuels negative body image among many social media users.
The Positive Side Of Social Media
Despite its flaws, social media can have a positive impact for some people struggling with their body image. In addition to the harmful body standards that have been present on line over the past few years, there has recently been a "body positive" movement to counteract the message that there is one ideal body type. Those involved in the positive body movement will often hashtag their photos, so all social media users can search the "body positive" or "bopo" hashtag and see a stream of photos of people with all body types feeling confident in their skin.
Additionally, many users are sharing their story of eating disorder recovery, in contrast to the pro-ana and pro-mia accounts. People recovering from eating disorders sharing their stories online not only provides them with support along their road to recovery but also sheds light on the reality of living with an eating disorder, possibly dissuading young social media users who felt "inspired" by the pro-eating disorder pages.
Are You Struggling With Body Image?
If you have concerns regarding your body image, know that you are not alone. Most likely, many of your peers feel the same way you do. And, the good news is that you can get help. 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.
It is unlikely that social media is going away anytime soon, but anyone can learn how to better cope with the related mental and emotional impacts. Get in touch with a therapist if you want to get to a place where you can keep up with social media while still feeling good about yourself and your body.
An increasing body of knowledge suggests that online counseling delivers benefits similar to traditional, in-person counseling. More specifically, the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that “technology‐enhanced interventions offer multiple opportunities to improve care for eating disorders.”
Online counseling is particularly well-matched for BDD or other body-image related disorders. This form of counseling is both convenient and flexible, so that therapy is not restricted to office hours. The help that you need is only a call, message, or text away. If something is affecting you at present, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to work through it sooner rather than later, without the more complex scheduling required in booking a face-to-face session. This could be especially beneficial if you are making improvements, but feel the tug of old habits or thought processes start to creep back in.
As we mentioned, social media is most likely here to stay. If you think that social media use may be contributing to body-image issues that are affecting your confidence or, more severely, your day-to-day functioning, reach out to a professional that can help. Here are some testimonials from others who have benefitted from our services.
“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 members 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 access 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!”
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