Social Media and the Body Image Crisis


Content warnings: discussions of eatings disorders and body dysmorphia. 



Ever felt bad about yourself after scrolling on Instagram for a while? What about feeling 'ugly' when you scroll on TikTok? Have you ever wondered why this happens?

We all know that social media was initially created as a way to connect. To share our photos with our friends and family. As it grew, and established a large base of users, it was used by companies and individuals to try and sell services and products. This has led to the rise of the influencer. 

So, what exactly makes social media so harmful to our body image? And how has this become so toxic?

Social media is shaping our concept of beauty. Unrealistic beauty standards have existed for a while, but it was not until the rise of social media that they were promoted 24/7. Recently, the rise of the ‘booty babe’ (having an hourglass figure with a large butt) has been celebrated. Images, videos, and photos promote it all-over social media. Just think of the Kardashians. Consequently, women strive for this unrealistic beauty and body type. When they don’t achieve it, or even when they just compare themselves to it, they can feel negative about their body image. According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration body image is “the combination of the thoughts and feelings you have about your body.” It's influenced by a range of internal and external factors such as personality and social environment. Therefore, social media is helping to fuel the mental health crisis. 

One of the main reasons why social media is contributing to the body image crisis is because it allows for constant comparison. When people view everyone else's highlight reels they subconsciously or consciously compare it to their real life. This comparison is unhealthy. Especially because social media has turned into a competition with everyone in the world, not just the people you see in real life. Everyone is a loser in this bizarre and unhealthy competition.

Half the time, this unrealistic body standard that everyone is supposed to work towards isn't even real! Whether it's plastic surgery, such as a Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL), or body and face filters, social media promotes a fake image of what our bodies should look like. So, when you compare yourself and you don’t look like the 1%, don't feel bad about yourself. I should mention that this beauty standard is based on white Eurocentric features. This is a long held societal belief based on how society was shaped decades ago. This standard has led to the idea that if you do not meet any of those features, such as smooth skin or a slim nose, you are deemed ugly. This should definitely not be the case, especially in this modern age, as beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.

Research suggests that social media is correlated with body image concerns, and they found that who we compare ourselves to is key. In a survey of female university students, students reported that when comparing themselves to their peers and celebrities they felt worse about themselves than compared to their family members while on Facebook. The strongest link to body image concerns was with peers or acquaintances. 

Another stressor on social media is the social currency. Ever post a photo then get off your phone for a while because you are nervous? Yeah, that feeling. We end up tying our self-worth to images because we attribute a lot of value to the likes and comments we receive. Another thing about the notification is that every time we get a like or the red bubble that comes up on the app, we feel compelled to check them. This is because we are like addicts, in the sense every like we get our brain releases a shot of dopamine. 

The pandemic has worsened this crisis due to an increased time spent at home and online. Research has found an increase in the number of hospitalisations for eating disorders in young adults and a rising level of anxiety and depression. Social media consumption does contribute to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating which, if left unnoticed, can become serious mental health illness. Eating disorders, which encompass a broad range of mental illnesses, are characterised by abnormal eating habits. A spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorders Association stated “social media, in general, does not cause an eating disorder. However, it can contribute to an eating disorder, there are certain posts and certain content that may trigger one person and not another person.”

Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) is another mental illness where social media can amplify the condition. BDD is a condition where the individual is hyper fixated on a perceived flaw that cannot be observed by someone else. The individual's thinking patterns become abnormal and the person is bombarded with negative thoughts about their body. 

How do trends affect us? 

I am sure you have seen the ‘that’ girl trend on TikTok. It is typically a video that shows what they do in a day, including waking up around 6 am, eating healthy, going to the gym, and having an all-around productive day. ‘That’ girl promotes wellness as an aesthetic. This is toxic. Not only because it creates an expectation that we must constantly be productive in our work and always work on ourselves all the time to be the most put-together version of ourselves. But because generally only white, skinny, conventionally attractive, wealthy women are promoting this idea. Trends like this reinforce the long-held Eurocentric beauty standards as the only beauty ideal to aspire to.

Body checking trends have also popped up on TikTok. The hashtag #bodychecking has reached 5.5 million views. Body checking is taking note of your weight, shape, size, and appearance. These views show people showcasing their body or comparing them to household items. For example, pulling a baggy shirt around their body to reveal an hourglass figure or using their finger to check their wrist size. These are just some examples of the many types of trends focusing on a specific attribute of the body. These trends are problematic and harmful for body image as their whole purpose is to show off and flex a specific attribute. There also tends to be little body diversity in these trends, which is a key problem because TikTok promotes these videos to users that a specific body type is desired over others. To be liked or noticed, you must look or dress a certain way reinforcing unrealistic body standards. 

How do we help ourselves?

Recently, body positivity and body neutrality have become emerging trends. Body positivity is about embracing the diversity and uniqueness of bodies while fighting against the ‘thin’ ideal. Body neutrality, however, is the idea that the body is a vessel and there should be no positive or negative ideas surrounding bodies. For example, focusing on what your body can do for you. These trends are both steps forward in the right direction. However, we cannot be reliant on social media to change the way we think for ourselves. We must take steps to change this. 

To create a better online experience for yourself, start by changing who you follow. Ask yourself, does this person make me feel good about myself? If not, unfollow them. And instead, follow accounts that make you feel better about your body. For starters, I'd recommend body positivity accounts such as @laura.iu (an anti-diet dietitian), @theantidietplan (a psychologist helping people cut ties with diet culture) and @danaemercr (an advocate for self-love). Viewing content like this can help you become more appreciative and acceptive of your bodies. You can also model good online behaviour (such as not photoshopping or filtering photos of yourself which is harmful to your body image anyway). I believe the best advice is to put down your phone and take a break. Disconnect from social media for a while because remember the online world just isn't not real.

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