Does social media actually cause body image issues?

Social media gets blamed a lot as a cause of eating disorders and body image issues. A study published in March this year examined this in detail among adolescents in Israel. I will summarize the paper here.

We can’t just blame social media for body image issues without blaming ourselves I’d like to preface this with however. We are the ones internalizing the messages then acting on it. But when we are exposed to media, we may act out on it and let it influence our lives without thinking about it. It surely happened to me when I was a chubby (as I thought) teenager. What about people who instead of having a negative body image, develop a positive body image due to social media? I will talk about that in a bit.

So this study examined people with disordered eating and not eating disorders. Disordered eating is characterized by a preoccupation with weight and food and results in caloric restriction, heavy exercising, and the use of laxatives or diuretics to control weight. I remember for me green tea was my favorite back in the day and I got into that primarily to lose weight (even though I thought the health benefits were interesting as well–I wouldn’t have drank it if it didn’t also have weight loss potential).

The risk factors for disordered eating pathologies (DEPs) and eating disorders (EDs) include the following:

  • body dissatisfaction
  • disturbed body image
  • low self-esteem
  • low sense of empowerment

The researchers wanted to look at how being on Facebook and watching TV shows like Gossip Girl influenced these teenagers’ body image. The whole idea here is that comparing yourself to others is a huge factor in developing any one of the four risk factors I described above (social comparison theory). Again, as I mentioned already, I kept thinking about those “inspiration” photos on instagram and how there are also people who feel inspired and develop a positive body image.

I posted on my instagram two weeks ago about a study (full-text not available without subscription) from Poland that found that teens with better body images exercised more. That confused me a little bit because I thought having a negative body image made people want to work out. But along the way, perhaps the image changes and people feel better about themselves.

To me that’s pathetic but it’s the reality and it will not change. People exercise to change their bodies, not to become healthier (it’s accepted as a nice side effect but it’s not the primary reason!). That’s the generalization and it’s not true for everyone, but true for a lot of people. It’s merely a cosmetic tool in this unfortunate light.

And so those people who develop a positive body image perhaps reach their ideal body. But I think the ideals themselves aren’t that attractive. That’s another story but I have mentioned this on instagram how many “before” pictures of bikini competitors look a lot better than the “after” photos because extreme leanness in females is a turn-off for most men.

I bring that up just as a counterpoint, because I’ve found that this world of eating disorder research seems to be completely separate from discussions on fitness and exercise. They’ll say for example that the harmful media images present people with “unattainable” physiques. Well that’s not entirely true in my opinion; some of them are indeed attainable. My problem with them is that they’re not as attractive as people think and that people aiming to look like that may already have a healthy and very attractive body. They may be unattainable for some due to differences in bone structure however. These worlds are also at odds because body images issues to the ED world is bad but to the fitness world it might be the precursor to a positive transformation. Anyway.

Let’s move onto the findings of this study (fairly straightforward). They had five hypotheses, which I’ll sum up. They first predicted that people with worse empowerment, or ability to critically think about their media exposure and not be influenced by them basically, will have a poorer body image. Next, media exposure was predicted to correlate with more disordered eating and poor body image. They also predicted that chiller parents, basically parents who don’t try to control their kids’ media exposures but are open about discussing them with their kids, have kids with better empowerment. Then lastly, the combination of low empowerment, poor body image, and harmful media exposure predict disordered eating pathology.

Results

They found basically that all of that was true. Watching TV, reading magazines, and being on Facebook was associated with poor body image AND disordered eating. Looking for the presence of both of these things was a strength to this study, because it’s not enough to just say that consuming media results in poor body image. Seeing what people are doing with that information is the next step in showing some level of causality.

What are we to do with the results of this study?

The results aren’t mind-blowing, but it’s the first study to examine these three variables together. But is the solution to cut out Facebook and social media? As the authors pointed out, the comparison among immediate peers like friends results in feelings of poorer body image. A survey conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt found that 32% of respondents said they felt sad when comparing facebook images of themselves versus their friends.

The explanation for that could be that media images of thinness are often associated with happiness, success, and of course beauty.

If kids are obese and overweight and they want to change themselves that’s great. The problem is, and the reason why I choose to think about this topic, is that being thinner won’t enhance the appearance of most of the people wanting to be thinner. For males, becoming more muscular won’t always make them more attractive either. Will it sometimes? Yes of course; since we’ve fully internalized on a global scale now that muscles look good on men, having some extra muscles can make you look better and indirectly improve your confidence that way. But it’s certainly not necessary for you to be a more attractive or strong man.

For women, the skinny ideals might not even be attractive, but maybe less attractive. Thigh gaps aren’t attractive to all men, and if they are, it might be due to the media influencing them. There is a subjective and objective component in all this but certain traits like body fat indicate our reproductive potential. Having too little of it can indicate less reproductive potential. And that’s why this is important to me, because social media is ruining beautiful women by making them think they need to be skinnier.

Conclusion

Comparing oneself to others on social media can result in poorer body image and disordered eating pathology. One’s sense of empowerment, or ability to analyze peer pressures and influences of the media, is a critical way to prevent disordered eating behavior when exposed to media. This is why the body positive movement is good in my opinion; although there are people who are obese who support the movement as well (who may or may not be unhealthy), the idea of building confidence from within is HUGE for feeling good. I was insecure as a teenager because of my gynecomastia, but after spending years actively working on my confidence, I feel better in all situations.

Strive for a better body if you truly want to; but just think about your ideals and whether or not they’re extreme and influenced by the types of pictures you are exposed to!

 

 

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