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How Social Media Harms Your Body Image + What To Do About It

Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld
June 19, 2014
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June 19, 2014

Eight years ago, I started a blog with the goal of starting a dialogue around women’s struggles with food and weight. It became a popular interactive community of people impacted by self-esteem issues and poor relationships with food and their bodies. Ultimately hundreds of these eating disorder blogs and online support communities flourished.

Clearly, there was a need.

Has anything changed since the blog boom?

Not really. In fact, recent reports have alarmed us to the dangers of social media (including blogging) in promoting eating disorders and a more general disordered mentality.

We've learned that exposure to Facebook; certain Twitter hashtags; and images on Pinterest, Instagram, and blogs can trigger symptoms in those who are predisposed. Terms like pro-ana, thinspo, fitspo, thigh gap, and food porn have become part of our vernacular.

Social media can be difficult for those with clinical eating disorders due to the sites' promotion of the thin ideal. Most people are posting only the best, most flattering pictures of themselves, raising the bar for beauty and appearance.

Men and women with eating disorders then compare themselves against others' best, edited selves — and technology permits a virtually infinite comparison group.

Plus, social media feeds often read like diet directives. Those we connect with online post often on their weight loss victories, their marathon training, the cleanses, diets, and juicing they are trying — all of which can be triggering for those susceptible to disordered eating.

This is not to say all the weekend warriors and healthy eaters need to censor their posts. Ultimately, the onus falls on the social media “consumer” to figure out what content (and people) are triggering for her so that she can remove these posts or block certain feeds. But, it’s important to know that this type of sharing can be triggering to those who already struggle with these issues.

Moreover, many sites run ads promoting the thin ideal, which can further body dissatisfaction. Ads pop up on users' screens for diet plans, exercise programs, and "fitspo" images, all of which can reinforce unhealthy ideas about food and weight.

But social media can also be an incredible ally for recovery, growth, and change. And that is why I blog.

At the International Conference of Eating Disorders in March 2014, Australian health psychologist Phillipa Diedrichs said that through our use of social media, "we become the media."

When we speak of all the evils of the media with regard to eating and body image disturbance, we must recognize that there are powerful counter-culture voices in the mix, louder than ever before.

How exactly are we impacting the world around us in a positive way? Here are a few examples:

  • When lingerie store La Perla featured a frighteningly thin mannequin in their Manhattan shop, a Twitter firestorm forced the company to take it down.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch now carries plus sizes because of an online campaign by Proud2BMe teen ambassador Benjamin O'Keefe.
  • Seth Matlin’s Truth in Advertising act, encouraging regulation of image editing in advertising, gained significant traction through the use of the hashtag #TruthInAds.
  • Women all over are posting undoctored (and sometimes unflattering) photos of themselves on social media sites to promote self-acceptance. In one, the founder of Beauty Redefined shared an unedited wedding photo of herself to challenge the wedding industry’s retouching of photos.

As a blogger and writer, I love being part of the burgeoning revolution that provides an alternative voice and challenges the thin ideal that has deleterious consequences for some and unfortunate consequences for all.

How can you use social media as friend, rather than foe?

  • Recognize if your participation on certain sites is causing you distress and evaluate the pros and cons of continuing to use these sites.
  • Create and manage a list of sites, organizations, and people to follow that promote recovery and body positivity.
  • Learn how to remove triggering advertisements from your sites and consider reporting those that promote pathology.
  • Become an activist yourself! The more vocal you are, the better in terms of furthering the movement and bettering your own recovery and relationship with your body.
  • If you have children who go online, be sure to monitor them closely and talk to them about how certain websites and images make them feel.

Are we still swimming upstream when it comes to challenging the myriad media influences that negatively impact self-esteem? Probably. But now there IS a swelling current that carries us.

Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld author page.
Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld

Dr. Rosenfeld is a clinical psychologist who treats patients with eating disorders, anxiety/depression, substance abuse issues, and relationship difficulties. She also has expertise in exercise/sport psychology. A certified group psychotherapist, Dr. Rosenfeld has worked at treatment centers and universities around the U.S., including at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and UCLA in Los Angeles. In addition, she is certified as a personal trainer and indoor cycling instructor and previously served as the chief psychologist of the New York City Triathlon. Dr. Rosenfeld is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders; International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals; and National Eating Disorders Association. She lives and practices in southern CA, and is also licensed to practice in NY. She is the author of the book Does Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation’s Fixation with Food and Weight (June 2014).