The Impact of Social Media on Body Image and Disordered Eating

Every time I write a blog about the dangers of social media use, I can feel myself age in real-time. I’m well aware that social media is disproportionately used by young people, and disproportionately complained about by people, like myself, who aren’t deemed young anymore.

Author – Patrick Carson

However, social media does bring with it significant costs, and rarely are those costs so evident as they are in terms of body image, body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Body image refers to the way in which we perceive, think, and feel about our physical bodies. Our body image can have healthy and unhealthy components, regardless of how we actually look. Broadly, a healthy body image is one in which we tolerate and accept and our bodies, and don’t place undue importance on how our appearance affects our value as a person. A negative or unhealthy relationship with body image is one in which we hold our body standards to unrealistic, perfect ideals, or in which we devote excessive amounts of time and mental energy to thoughts about our shape, weight, and overall appearance. That over-evaluation of the importance of shape and weight is a key factor underlying many cases of disordered eating. Not everyone with a negative body image will develop an eating disorder, nor does every eating disorder involve an unhealthy relationship with body image. However, unhealthy body image is a significant risk factor for the development of disordered eating behaviours, and a risk factor that is exacerbated by social media use.

Social media, particularly image and video-based social media apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, bombard you with visual stimuli as soon as you open them. Image after image, video after video, typically of conventionally attractive people. This can affect our body image in several ways – one of which is in the form of increased comparison-making. Those of us prone to making frequent appearance-based comparisons to others are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. The more we compare ourselves to others, particularly if we hold rigid standards for our own appearance, the more chances we have to come up short, to judge ourselves as inadequate, or defective, or simply not good enough. This vulnerability is only enhanced by excessive social media use – seeing thousands of images on a daily basis allows us to make comparisons constantly, and images on social media are often unrealistic points of comparison. They are frequently edited, making attaining such appearances not just practically impossible, but sometimes literally impossible. They may be carefully staged, or chosen from moments where the poster was particularly happy with their appearance. As such, we often wind up comparing our reality to someone else’s highlight reel, and that’s a contest in which we will rarely perform well. Finally, many images come from those for whom social media is not just a hobby or a distraction, but a profession. Their livelihood may depend on holding their appearance to unhealthy or unrealistic standards, because it has a very real, concrete impact on their income if they don’t.

Even if we’re not using social media professionally, it nonetheless provides a source of concrete validation for an unhealthy or distorted body image. Social media is a feedback-driven system – when we post, we receive feedback, positive and negative, for the content we’ve created. If a picture of ourselves gets few positive reactions, it can reinforce any existing worries we might have that we don’t look good enough. If an edited or staged picture we post receives a larger response, it further reinforces that other people would respond to us so much more positively if we just looked a little different. This is especially dangerous because the relative anonymity of social media means that responses are often far harsher than those we’d receive in real life.

For these reasons among others, social media has a well-established negative impact upon body image and disordered eating behaviours. Reducing our social media use is a great initial step. When using social media, it’s also vital to remember that the images we see do not represent reality, and as such the comparisons we make are unrealistic. We are worth more than a physical body, and our physical body is worth more than the reactions it receives on an anonymous, and deeply critical rating platform. If you’re struggling with body image, it’s important to consider making an appointment with a qualified health professional. After all, you’re in your body 24 hours a day – it’d be nice to feel good about it.

Better Self Psychology specialises in helping children, teenagers, and young adults.

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