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Body Negative To Body Positive:  Shaking Off The Effects Of Social Media’s Body And Beauty Ideals

Kate Eisenreich

Sometime in eighth grade, when I was about thirteen, after begging my parents for the longest time, I was finally allowed to join my friends on the popular photo sharing social media app, Instagram. I loved being able to connect with my friends. I loved watching videos of social media influencers trying the latest makeup trends. I loved being able to finally understand internet meme culture. Using the app was really fun for me. I shared photos of myself and looked at pictures of my friends on it. It was, however, also the first time that I really thought about how I looked. When you like a post on Instagram, the app is designed to show you more of that content and similar content in your feed. Because I liked fashion and makeup, I was unknowingly pushing women, using tons of photoshop and plastic surgery and claiming it was natural, into my feed. Comparing my posts to those of  these influencers and models made me feel inadequate. The app showed me posts claiming to fix my perceived inadequacies and make me more beautiful. These posts encouraged viewers to go on unhealthy diets, workout to change the shape of one’s body, and monitor the amount of calories one consumed. Still quite young and quite impressionable, these things affected me and when I looked in the mirror, and I wondered if I was good enough, pretty enough, and skinny enough. I began to worry about what others saw when they looked at me in real life.

 Luckily, around the same time the body positivity movement, a social movement preaching self-love and acceptance of different bodies, sprung up. I began to see women’s bodies highlighted positively and realistically, sans filters. I began to realize that the internet had warped my perception of myself in an unhealthy way. I slowly began to patch over my fissures of Instagram-instigated insecurity and learned to love myself and my body. Despite my own healing, I still saw many of my peers struggling with body image. I watched a distant friend of mine receive treatment of an eating disorder. And she was not alone. Globally, from 2000 to 2018, the percentage of the population with eating disorders increased from 3.4% to 7.8%. Around two-thirds of those diagnosed with eating disorders are women. 

Scientists have linked social media to eating disorders. A study found that Facebook users who compare themselves to others while using Facebook are more likely to suffer from disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. Interestingly, a user who does not engage in unhealthy comparisons while using Facebook is also more likely to suffer from disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. So, whether you believe that content displaying body or beauty ideals is affecting you, by simply consuming mainstream media, your brain will begin to adopt these beauty standards.  Researchers found that on YouTube, around one third of content discussing anorexia can be described as “pro-anorexia”. Additionally, there is a directly proportional linkbetween the amount of time a user spends on social media and their risk for an eating disorder. This link becomes even more apparent when the sample is limited to only teen girls and young women, who, as a demographic, are more likely to engage in social media usage for longer periods of time and more often. Worldwide, the average amount of time spent on social networking sites by internet users has increased from 90 minutes to 147 minutes a day. The increase in amount of time spent on social media will likely result in an increase in low body satisfaction and eating disorders if we do not change our exposure to the way social media portrays body and beauty ideals. 

From encouraging dangerous cosmetic procedures, to causing a global uptick in eating disorders, to pushing western beauty ideals to larger audiences, social media can be a dangerous place for perception of body image. And while social media is slowly becoming more diverse and realistic, this is only true if a user actively seeks more varied representation their feed. The idea that thin white cisgender able-bodied people are the epitome of beauty still permeates much of the content we consume. To protect all social media users, especially young women who may be more susceptible to social media’s influence, we must help to create and promote content that portrays a variety body types, does so realistically, and holds influencers accountable for not being transparent about cosmetic procedures and photoshop.  And ultimately, we must undo the negative effect social media has already wrought by actively fighting against rigid, unattainable body and beauty ideals within our own communities.

Contact the Eating Disorder Hotline if you are struggling with an eating disorder.  

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