You wake up and the first thing you do is reach for your phone and have a quick scroll through your Instagram feed. You look in the mirror and maybe what you see doesn’t reflect what you’d just seen in the 50 photos you’ve just browsed. Maybe your house isn’t as tidy and picture perfect. Maybe your wardrobe isn’t as curated and on trend. It’s 7.30am and you already feel inadequate. Sound familiar? Is social media actually damaging our mental health or is it just a bit of fun that we take with a pinch of salt?
Does social media distort body image?
Believe it or not, there are several studies that show that the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to feel unhappy with your appearance. However, this isn’t universal to all users of social media: browsing Twitter for news or chat isn’t the issue (although I find the Twitter rage a little hard to understand!) It’s viewing and engaging with images that cause us to compare ourselves visually with others that is the most potentially damaging for our body image. And we tend to compare ourselves more negatively with people we don’t know very well such as social media peers, rather than real life friends or celebs. This makes sense because we know our friends well and see them in real life and we understand that celebrities are followed around by stylists and make-up artists as well as having vast funds and the time to invest in their appearance. Whereas we see the people we follow on Instagram but don’t know well in real life as being similar to ourselves in terms of lifestyle and income so we are most likely to compare ourselves unfavourably to them. This then affects our own self-esteem.
This is an area in which research is in its infancy and most of the studies only make a correlation between viewing pictures on social media and less positive body. However, a recently published study asked two groups of female undergraduates to view and comment on either images of their family or of an attractive female peer on social media. They were asked to rate how confident they felt about their body before and after the test. Incredibly, in the group viewing the attractive peers, there was drop in body confidence after interacting with attractive peers on social media.
This negative impact on body image isn’t just restricted to women. A study conducted on young men and women found similar levels of dissatisfaction with body image linked to the amount of editing and curating that they carried out before posting a photo to social media. In effect, the more that individuals edited and filtered a picture and the more they scoured though their shots to find the perfect one, the more likely they were to be unhappy with their body.
Even more worryingly, those who spend a lot of time viewing idealised images on social media seem to develop what’s known as a “drive for thinness”, again found in both men and women. This perpetuates a very narrow definition of beauty (slim but with curves in the right places for women and lean and muscular for men) that is reinforced and legitimised across our society. The body positive movement is making huge strides and in some respects, social media can be a real force for good in showing brands that all sizes and body types have a right to dress well and express themselves through fashion and some brands do a great job of working with influencers of all shapes, sizes, races, colours and levels of ableness. But there is still a huge and worrying ‘thin ideal’ that pervades much of social media and still a long way for brands to go before they are truly inclusive.
It’s not real life folks
Anyone who has posted an image to social media will know that you have to take a fair few shots before you get one you’re happy with. Of course, you don’t want one with lipstick on your teeth, your hair in your eyes or of someone photobombing you. But hands up who doesn’t stand a certain way to look slimmer, to make your legs look longer, to disguise the bits of your body you’re less confident in? I can fully admit to standing slightly on tiptoe in photos and pulling my shoulders back so my legs look longer and frame looks narrower.
I don’t massively edit or filter my pictures. I just brighten them slightly and adjust the contrast. I certainly don’t use tools to slim my figure or enhance different areas but many people certainly do. And then there are all the skin smoothing techniques and filters to create an almost otherworldly level of flawlessness.
We’re familiar with this sort of enhancement in magazines and on billboards so why should social media be any different? Anyone can now own a photo editing app that can create the perfect image. So we’re now surrounded by people like us, not celebrities, all of whom look perfect. And yes, we can jump on the bandwagon and pose, filter, enhance and curate but then we look in the mirror and we look at the pictures we’ve rejected and we think… “Oh.” But remember, virtually everyone else who looks perfect and has the perfect life on social media is probably doing exactly the same thing!
Also, bear in mind that we don’t know most of our social media peers. Are they truly as happy as they seem on their curated feeds? Or does the smile fade as soon as the camera stops snapping? Do they really love drinking protein-laced kale smoothies for breakfast? Or do they secretly crave a burger and a bar of Dairy Milk? What have they sacrificed for how they look or for their thousands of social media followers? Their social life and family ties? Their happiness and mental health? Their physical health? Is it really all worth it?
What about older adults?
Most of the research into how social media affects body image is conducted in teenagers and people in their early 20s as they’re often the most avid used of social media. What of people in their 30s, 40s and above? I can only speak from personal experience here, so indulge me while I give you a bit of personal background.
I was reasonably body confident through my 20s and have always been relatively sporty as an adult (let’s not talk about the amount of school gym classes for which I was ‘sick note girl’). I decided in my infinite wisdom, to do a bikini fitness competition in my early 30s, thinking, “I enjoy weight training; why not do it competitively?” Anyone who follows #fitspo accounts on Instagram will realise that the obsession with sculpting the body perfect goes beyond enjoying being active and becomes a preoccupation with excessive training and dieting to achieve often dangerously low levels of bodyfat. I carried food in tubs with me everywhere I went and couldn’t so much as go for a coffee with friends or go out for a meal as it would mean going off plan. And to be honest, I quickly came to the conclusion that the unhappiness, boredom and isolation of dieting and training far outweighed the limited benefits of having the perfect derriere. Hence, I weighed in on competition day at 8 stone and a size 8 to be told I needed to lose a further stone, that I was “fuller figured”, “loose” and “not glamourous enough”. Oh.
I won’t lie, my confidence took a massive hit. Obviously, I probably should have been wiser to what I was getting into as bodybuilding or indeed any competitive sport requires an extreme level of dedication and poses a huge risk of creating an unhealthy preoccupation with training, dieting and body image. It took me a while (and a course of CBT) to get back any semblance of body confidence. Here’s how I feel today as a 40-something:
I care far far less about what others think. My body isn’t perfect by any means but it serves me well and I dress in a way that suits and flatters my shape and makes me feel confident. My focus now is to be strong and healthy so I can continue to enjoy an active life into my 60s, 70s and hopefully beyond. I eat relatively healthily but I will never sacrifice cheese, chocolate or wine and I genuinely enjoy my food. I am not going to diet or restrict myself unless my health is at stake. I prioritise my mental health and my relationships. To this end, there are some social media accounts I won’t follow because I run the risk of making negative comparisons between myself and them based purely on physical appearance and I don’t need that.
My personal tips for a healthy relationship with social media
If you have any more tips that work for you, let me know and I will keep the blog updated.