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4 ways to keep social media from damaging your body image

By Emily Fonnesbeck, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Apr 18th, 2018 @ 8:38pm



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SALT LAKE CITY — Have you ever left your social media feeds feeling bad about yourself, the way you eat or the way you look? You wouldn’t be alone since social media use is strongly correlated with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

For example, just 30 minutes on Instagram can make women fixate negatively on their weight and appearance. In a survey about Facebook, 75 percent of Facebook users report being unhappy with their body while 51 percent reported Facebook makes them more conscious about their body and weight.

Social media has the unique ability to affect our self-esteem in ways that television, magazines and movies don’t. Dina Borzekowski is a professor at Johns Hopkins school of public health who specializes in children, media and health and spoke with CNN in 2012 about this relationship.

“Social media may have a stronger impact on children’s body image than traditional media," Borzekowski told CNN. "Messages and images are more targeted: If the message comes from a friend it is perceived as more meaningful and credible."

Research has found that 37 percent of social media users feel they need to change specific parts of their body when comparing their bodies to friend’s bodies in photos.

Placing value on weight loss and appearance causes widespread anxiety about weight for everybody of every size. Emphasis on weight control is shown to increase risk for disordered eating behaviors.

Conventional thought is that body discontent motivates someone toward healthy behaviors. Mounting evidence and clinical practice find the opposite: body discontent is associated with disordered eating patterns, binge eating, lower levels of physical activity and increased weight gain over time.

Social media isn’t the only contributor to body dissatisfaction or disordered eating. These are complex issues with many factors, but social media has definitely fueled them. This Huffington Post article by Greta Gleissner explains it well:

“Although social media itself is not the sole cause of an eating disorder, it has fueled individuals to engage in disordered patterns of eating," Gleissner wrote. "According to research, 'media is a causal risk factor for the development of eating disorders and has a strong influence on a person’s body dissatisfaction, eating patterns, and poor self-concept.' Individuals begin to constantly compare themselves to thin models, their peers, as well as famous social media users and begin to feel inadequate about their own self-image."

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Social media is also an outlet for individuals to share their personal experiences and opinions about food. When an unlicensed social media user is seen as an expert on nutrition or exercise, it can create possible confusion about healthful exercise and nutrition patterns. It’s important to remember that if we all ate the same and exercised the same, we would all still look different. Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist at Smith College explored this subject in a 2016 Time magazine article:

“The meteoric rise of the 'wellness' industry online has launched an entire industry of fitness celebrities on social media. Millions of followers embrace their regimens for diet and exercise, but increasingly, the drive for 'wellness' and 'clean eating' has become stealthy cover for more dieting and deprivation," Simmons wrote. "This year, an analysis of 50 so-called 'fitspiration' websites revealed messaging that was indistinguishable, at times, from pro-anorexia (pro-ana) or 'thinspiration' websites. Both contained strong language inducing guilt about weight or the body, and promoted dieting, restraint and fat and weight stigmatization."

Social media can be a great tool for information and connection; however, due to its impact on body image and eating patterns, social media can also be harmful. Here are four ways you can set boundaries to protect yourself.

1. Be intentional about when and why you are using it.

Are you scrolling as a distraction, procrastination or boredom, or are you generally interested in connecting with friends and family?

2. Unfollow, hide or unlike pages or feeds that are triggering, food and body preoccupied or cause you to "compare and despair."

If you come away from your time on a social media platform feeling worse about yourself, take that as a sign that something needs to go.

3. Follow accounts that encourage healthy, flexible and realistic nutrition and exercise habits.

Healthy eating isn’t restrictive, it’s flexible and inclusive of a wide variety of foods. Exercise should feel the same; it’s not a punishment for what you ate and doesn’t need to be seen as a tool to burn off calories. Physical activity should be enjoyable and will look different for everybody.

4. Be wise about what you post on your own feeds.

Is it positive, helpful and nontriggering? Are you portraying an accurate picture or filtering for perceived perfection? For those influential social media users, do you talk about yourself for attention or do you genuinely want to engage in helpful discussions with readers? Will what you post be seen as inspiring and uplifting or will it increase anxiety and comparison?


Emily Fonnesbeck

About the Author: Emily Fonnesbeck

Emily Fonnesbeck is a registered dietitian with her own private practice in St. George, Utah, working with both local and virtual clients. Her treatment specialities include disordered eating, body image and digestive issues. Learn more at www.emilyfonnesbeck.com.


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