What Impact Does Social Media Have on Body Image Perceptions?

You may have seen our Blog at the beginning of the week: How Does Body Image Impact Mental Health? The piece was written as the first in a three-part series exploring the topic of body image as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 by Psychotherapist Gemma Saggers.  Today, we feature a continuation of Gemma’s engaging and insightful writing on the subject as she explores the question:

What Impact Does Social Media Have on Body Image Perceptions? 

Gemma Saggers Psychotherapist with Specialist Interest in Body Image and Disordered Eating.

Gemma Saggers Psychotherapist with Specialist Interest in Body Image and Disordered Eating.

As discussed in Monday’s post; advertising, television and other types of visual and print media’s representations of only 5% of body types can have a negative impact on our mental health. Unsurprisingly, the same can be said for social media if we do not take an active role in how we engage with it.

What do I mean by social media? For the purpose of this post I refer to Facebook, Twitter & Instagram. I’m aware there are other social media platforms but as I don’t use them, I don’t feel educated enough to comment on how they impact our body image perceptions. I’m also aware that a lot of my understanding about social media stems from my own experience of it. Whilst I’ve done my best to be inclusive of a variety of social media experiences (including those that are not my own), it is possible that I may have missed your experience. If this is the case, I hope you’ll accept my apologies for any exclusion. I’m always keen to learn about my blind spots in a genuine effort to be as inclusive as possible. I welcome any comment on how I can better do this for the future.

The purpose of this article is split into two. Firstly, I’m going to highlight the different ways that each of these platforms can impact negatively on body image perceptions. I’m then going to explore the ways that we can consciously engage with each platform to encourage a positive impact for our body image perceptions. Along the way I will also share the social media accounts of those who I believe are fighting the good fight for positive body image perception!

Facebook

“Tharindi lost so much weight for her wedding and looks amazing – I’m not even nearly in a position to get married, what’s the matter with me?”

Did you see the picture Rebecca posted, she has lost so much weight on her new diet, I tried to do that diet and ended up putting on weight, I’m such a failure.”

“Joanne has already lost her baby weight, I’ve had my baby for over a year and still not managed to lose the weight.”

“Crystal shares so many photos of her surrounded by friends, I bet if I looked like her I’d be so much more popular and happier.”

“I used to be the same clothes size as her at school, how come she’s still skinny and I’m not. What did I do wrong?”

“Muhammad used to be stick thin at school, and how he’s got so many muscles! No girl is ever going to like me with a body like mine.”

The thing that distinguishes Facebook from other types of social media is that it’s likely you know or used to know most of the people in your network. Unlike previous generations, those of us who joined Facebook whilst we were/are still at school, accumulate a collection of people that we have grown up with or met along the way. There are often hundreds of photos that date back over a decade and document what we looked like as teenagers, university students and into our early adulthood.

The problem is that whilst documenting our lives can be fun in the moment, Facebook ends up acting as a catalogue, full of past decisions and versions of ourselves that can be accessed in a couple of clicks. Unlike older generations, Facebook means we haven’t had the true luxury of real separation from a version of who we once were, not fully allowed to shed old skins that we don’t fit with anymore and therefore potentially unable to fully encompass our new, older and wiser identity. This might be particularly important for transsexual, transgender or non-binary people, those who have overcome an eating disorder or just for those who feel in a different place to how they did whilst growing up.

It’s pretty likely that as we go on to study new things, meet new people, age and forge our path into adulthood that there will be changes to not only how we think and feel, but also to how we look. Whilst for some, Facebook can be a fun way to document and reflect on our changes, for others it can feel like a punishment; “Why am I not as slim as I used to be?” or “Why does my body not fit into those jeans anymore?” Set Point Weight is the weight range that your body is programmed to function at normally. Whilst this weight is different for everyone and is based on many factors including lifestyle, genetic, hormonal, parental or perhaps medical changes, it is the case that it is designed to naturally increase over time. Stressing over the fact that aged 30 we no longer wear the same dress size as we did when we 18 is going to cause ourselves the kind of stress that isn’t going to do our body image perception any good at all!

Just as Facebook keeps a record of our lives, it also gives us access to our ‘friends’ timelines. This provides us with the perfect pool of people who share some minor similarities to us (such as where we grew up or where we went to school) and therefore act as prime material for which to compare ourselves to. At this stage I point you in the direction of Lucy Sheridan (@lucysheridan) aka The Comparison Coach. Her social media is full of empowering information that shows us just how destructive comparison can be for our mental health and how we can stop playing ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ and recognise that we are an incomparable force!

A similar problem occurs in a different format for generations that re-connected after a gap. It’s easy to slot back into the comparison game even after time has passed. How have their bodies aged? Are they slimmer or fatter than they were at school? How did they manage to look so great at their daughter’s wedding when I’m struggling to fit into my dress? How did he manage to get such a hot wife? The list goes on…and it’s all kinds of exhausting!

When I first started working as a Psychotherapist and took the necessary steps to improve my self-care, (we can’t help you if we don’t look after ourselves!) one of the biggest changes I made was how I engage with social media. At the time, I think I had about 800 ‘friends’ on my Facebook account. There were people from summer internships, people from primary school, even girl’s I’d met in a nightclub toilet! There were the friends I’d lost touch with, people I’d been in class with (but never really liked) and friends I’d fallen out with in real life but still had access to via social media. I also had a small network of my very close friends, my family and people who I enjoyed staying connected with. I found that the people I genuinely cared for, liked or was connected to in real life didn’t elicit the same comparison factors of those I no longer knew. I wasn’t comparing my body image to theirs because I knew what they looked like in real life and had more information about their overall reality. Having this information meant that I didn’t need to fill in the blanks with my own insecurities or body image perceptions. That information gap also exists the generations that re-connected after several years; I wonder how many of you filled in the missing years with imagined detail that was held up as a comparison? As well as comparison, I’m ashamed to admit that in the past I’d offer out negative judgement on those I no longer knew. Regardless of your closeness, another person’s body is absolutely none of your business. Not knowing someone is not an excuse to use them as a platform to project your insecurities onto and once you’ve stopped you’ll notice just how quickly that you stop fearing others are doing the same!

Suggestion: How I’ve navigated this space is to refresh my Facebook ‘friends’ list. The criteria I’ve limited it to is: Family (because you can’t change those, although I’d recommend muting that annoyingly political aunt!) Close friends or people I’ve seen within the last year. People who live abroad and it’s a useful means of keeping in contact and people who I work with or see on a regular basis (and genuinely like). It’s about remembering that your Facebook feed is for you, not for others, and empowering yourself to operate it in a way that makes you feel authentic connection, not comparison. My advice also goes for liked pages. Facebooks advertising strategies (and the only kind of cookies I don’t like) will soon get wind of your insecurities and play up to them. I’m lucky that because I only follow pages that fit in line with my interests and values, I’m never pedalled the latest weight loss tea or miracle diet supplement. Don’t underestimate the impact on your body perception that seeing diet adverts and ‘perfect’ bodies can have.

Twitter
Whilst there is a function to upload pictures, Twitter is more about what crafty sentence or comment you can spring together in 280 characters. Saying this, it never fails to amaze (or appal) me just how cruel people can be to each other with so few words.

Where Twitter interacts with body image perception is when people feel it is appropriate to leave unprovoked (and often abusive) comments on accounts that they disagree with. Body Positive activist Megan Jayne Crabbe @bodyposipanda_, Fat Activist’s Sofie Hagan @sofiehagan and Jes Baker @militant_baker often detail the horrendous abuse that they receive online. Much of it is based on what others think of their bodies.

Fortunately, these women are armed with the self-confidence and education to pay no attention to the abuse. But what if you’re not? Just imagine how damaging these unkind words could be. Abuse on body image isn’t just thrown at those working to fight body image stigma. Anyone can face scrutiny at any time. If you want some tips on how to handle the trolls, then I can’t recommend following these women enough. Remember, just like Facebook you can take control of your Twitter account. There is a block feature for anyone you don’t want to engage with and I recommend you make use of it! I’d also encourage you to really think about any tweet you might compose that contains any reference to your own or another’s body image. I’d also ask you to be your own ally. Role model how people should treat you online by being kind to yourself. Remember, another person’s body image is absolutely none of our business. Next time you want to comment on how pretty someone in, I encourage you to think of a non looks-based compliment too!

I mainly use Twitter for work. I follow a community of people whose work I am interested in and whose morals and values I respect. For this reason, I absolutely will NOT follow The President of the United States even though his Twitter feed offers up much amusement! Since deciding to focus my MSc Research on Body Image and being interested in the Body Positive, Body Neutral, Fat Activist and Health at Every Size movements, I follow many accounts that are part of these movements too. For me, Twitter is a place to be educated and learn about perspectives that differ to my own. It’s certainly not a place to go to feel bad about my body image. I’d quickly unfollow or block any account that was promoting negative body image or leaving abusive comments. No time for that!

 Instagram

Back to the pictures we go, and for information on how seeing only one type of body in the media can negatively impact our mental health I refer you back to yesterday’s post. If you’re only following feeds and accounts that show more of this 5% then chances are you’re not going to be feeling good about yourself when you log onto Instagram either. My guess is that if you are following lots of accounts that promote the latest diet #strongnotskinny and #fitspo then Instagram is another place where you feel not quite good enough. If you’re one of those people that follows those things and gets happiness from it, then carry on. It’s not for me to say what you should and should follow, but I am interested in making sure what you follow makes you feel good.

My view is that there’s enough media representation of bodies out there that I can’t control, so I’m sure as hell going to be in charge of the ones I can! Instagram is my absolute favourite of all the social media accounts despite research that found that Instagram was the most detrimental to our mental health. I believe this is because whilst there is a tremendous wealth of kind, inclusive, representational material out there, there is also a whole heap of bad stuff and if we are following that, then we are going to continue to feel bad about our body image.

Another potential reason for this can be explained by looking at Calogero’s (2011) Self Objectification Theory which explains how “Westernised societies tend to objectify people in general, often treating people as if they are things or commodities…women are defined, evaluated and treated more often as objects than men are. In particular, it is the viewing of women as sex objects, as instruments for the sexual servicing and pleasure of men” The article leads on to explain how “feminist theorists have argued that the sexually objectifying experiences encountered by girls and women in their day-to-day environments leads them to internalize this objectifying gaze and to turn it on themselves. Girls and women come to view themselves from the vantage point of an experience observer and engage in chronic self-policing.” If we are constantly engaged in looking at photos or selfies of ourselves we are internalising the gaze. This takes up an awful lot of mental capacity and distracts us from just being in the moment or focusing on other things. It can have a really detrimental impact on our mental health.

Jamie Varon (@jamievaron) is a writer who promotes self-love and living with intention. Her clear-cut post entitled “How to Enjoy Instagram” offers the following tips: 1) Unfollow without guilt. Curate a feed that affirms you. It’s your space, your time, your brain. Give yourself goodness. 2) Follow accounts that make you feel good, make you feel lighter, make you feel like who you are and what you have is enough.” Megan Jayne Crabbe (@bodyposipanda_) agrees “It’s time to cultivate a safe space online where you can log on and feel celebrated! Be ruthless and get ready to tap that unfollow button!”

If you go away with one piece of advice today, I’d like it to be that you have the power to cultivate your own social media feed, and that recognising how you choose to do with this can have a positive or negative impact on your mental health and body image perception. Whilst it’s not for me to dictate how you use your social media platforms, in the interest of self-care and kindness to yourself, I’d encourage you to have a go at a few of the suggestions and see what happens. If you want to know more, please follow me on Instagram or Twitter @gemmasaggers and see what I mean. You won’t find anything that a whole heap of Body Positivity on my account and I intend to keep it that way!

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