Social Media and Body Image- The good, the bad and the hopeful…

The pro’s and con’s of social media stretch far and wide in many various directions. For children, teenagers and young adults, the power of social media can be even more confronting, shaping and sculpting influential minds and prescribing fads and trends that are blindly adhered to. For young women, the strength and predominance of social media has the ability to shape young minds and dictate ideas about body image that can instill a deep-seated self consciousness and confusion over what is in fact healthy and unhealthy when it comes to both appearance and behavior. A new worrisome category of images and hashtags have come to proliferate newsfeeds, most likely seen, fueled and followed by young influential women the world over.

The media has always had fingers pointed in its direction when it comes to eating disorders and body image. Films, magazines and commercials have for decades been accused of portraying false and dangerous messages to young women, posting both silent and blatant messages of the type of body that should be aspired to.

The issue with social media is that two added elements are bought into play.

 

Firstly, social media is near inescapable; it rests in the palm of our hands 24/7. At any given moment young women have access to an infinite thread of images that have the power to change, in a split second, the way they feel about themselves as an individual. Image after image offers the perfect body, flawless skin, bright smiles and a carefully sculpted ratio of gaps to curves. Of course, it doesn’t matter if the images have been cropped, filtered and amended by the user to create a far better version of the original. What is seen is the final product, not the touch ups. Reality is forgotten. Even the downright knowledge that women appear in the real world in all shapes and sizes is obliterated, as image after image offers these bodies of skin, bone and muscle that are swooned over.

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Secondly, is the added element that makes social media interactive. No longer are young women gazing at images on a movie screen or pages of a magazine, removed at least to a degree from these models, actors and stars. With social media, anyone can be seen and also heard. Comments on newsfeeds are enough to make or break a person. The proliferation and obsession with the ‘selfie’ means that people are putting themselves on screens around the world, susceptible to any remarks that faceless, anonymous people behind the screen choose to make. This works in two ways- an image of an incredibly thin woman in a bikini can be labeled as a role model, something to aspire to- the answer to the painful existence that often characterizes adolescence. The opposing side is that a woman of regular size, a real portrayal of a young women can be labeled as too fat, too curvy, too short, too freckly, too rounded, too…anything, anything other than remarks that are kind and considerate.

In this day and age, mobile phones and social media became hand in hand with being a teenager. Adolescence is hard enough without having your life broadcast to the world through a random image or moment captured in time. School bullying is taken to a new level, self esteem is taken to new plummeting lows and the desire to be something or someone other than who you really are, increases tenfold. Young women find themselves under constant pressure; pressure from themselves and their peer groups, to be and look a certain way. The bombardment on their daily news feeds can become overwhelming and eventually lead to unhealthy behaviors. Often, the goals are unrealistic, the body they strive for may be entirely unattainable, but in some cases, they are willing to die trying.

4497292636_98a515f084Entire groups focused on disordered eating and a fixation on thinness exist in the online world. Hashtags such as thighgap, anna, annainspired, thininspo, bikinibridge and more display hundreds of thousands of young women striving for unhealthy goals of what they have come to deem as perfect. The images often carry associated text, announcing goals met or encouraging others to stay focused on their goal; ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’ These trends have become so well documented that Pinterest now has a warning appear at the top of the screen when ‘thinspiration’ is typed into the search criteria; “Eating disorder are serious mental disorders which, if left untreated, can course serious health problems and be life threatening.’

80 % of all teenagers use social media platforms daily. Meaning they are being constantly spoken to, both directly and indirectly, about their body shape and size. Although the research for the link between social media and eating disorders is still relatively new, findings are being made that have shown the more time teenage girls spend on facebook and instagram, the more likely they are to develop a negative body image, disordered eating or an obsession with fitness.

These recent studies have shown that teenage girls whose parents are involved with their social media activity are less likely to develop disordered eating or concerning behaviors, compared to those whose parents are not involved or active in their online networks. This research suggests that it is important for parents to be aware of what their children are seeing and also ensuring there is an open dialogue and space for discussion regarding social media and body image at all times.

Parents and friends can also stay alert for signs of an eating disorder- these signs may include- a reclusion from social scenes, refusal to eat in public, noticeable changes in weight and appearance, hiding food or disposing of food, becoming withdrawal and secretive, spending excessive amounts of time exercising, a preoccupation with food and or body image, irregular or absent periods, fear of eating with others or eating out or a fixation on healthy eating or supplements.

Early intervention is the best way to prevent a serious decent into disordered eating. There are many helplines and websites you can visit that offer advice for people struggling or family and friends that fear someone they love is in trouble. Getting professional help really is the most effective form of treatment, asking for and accepting help isn’t always easy, but the painful existence of living with an eating disorder is a far greater challenge.

29A0EF8100000578-3124021-image-a-3_1434346254422The potential for social media to offer a positive place for young women does exist- a place for them to express themselves, to be inspired by one another, to share their passions and find like-minded people the world over. Food and fitness on social media feeds can be used as a positive tool to encourage young women to eat well and be active. For all the downsides of social media and body image, there is an equally positive and exciting upside that needs to be tapped into and exposed.

The challenge is to create a positive social media revolution- to use these tools in ways to prosper health and happiness. This is possible, it simply means staying away from feeds that are negative and unrealistic, deleting friends that do not serve you, having privacy settings up so you feel safe and protected and using social media as a platform that fulfills you, rather than depletes you.

Adel