The Association Between Social Media, Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating 

I saw this quote recently via Eat Happy Nutrition on Instagram and as soon as I saw it I was like YES.  

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A great reminder, which couldn’t be more appropriate for food or body image.  What societal pressures, social media feeds or conversations you’re overhearing make you think you should care about stuff you really don’t?  Do you feel you need to overthink food, second guess what you eat, spend more time at the gym or look a certain way?  Do you need perfect hair and skin?  Or the perfect house with perfect kids?  

As a recovering perfectionist, I’m admittedly more sensitive to these kinds of messages.  I’m grateful for that - the healing work I’ve done has grounded me in reality and keeps me connected to my values.  But it also makes me SUPER sensitive to the subtle way perfectionism can steal our authenticity and make us hustle for worthiness instead of standing firmly in our own story.  

So, I have some thoughts to share about social media in particular.  

I have a love/hate relationship with social media.  One one hand, it’s been an excellent business tool and I can use it to help spread a message I’m passionate about.  I’m very intentional about the messages, articles, research and stories I choose to share and am sincere in my desire to help those readers who may be struggling (like I once was).  My personal account is useful to; I really enjoy making Chatbooks, connecting with family and friends and importing social media posts into the weekly (well that’s my intention, it’s typically bi-monthly) journaling I do for my kids on my personal account. 

But we are all well aware that social media can create the allusion of perfection.  We can compare ourselves too easily, and/or actually start believing that perfection actually exists.  From the outside looking in, a lot of feeds can make it look like they never have a blurry photo, a bad day, a missed workout, kids who fight, a pimple, a messy relationship or an “imperfect” meal.  

But the tie between social media and the comparison trap, body dissatisfaction and disordered eating isn’t just anecdotal.  

It’s a well researched topic with very clear and significant associations between them.  Here are some statistics for you: (most via HERE and some from articles sited below)

  • In an online survey conducted by Girl Scouts, 9 out of 10 girls felt pressure by fashion and media industries to be skinny.
  • Survey of the contents of Seventeen magazine found that the largest percentage of pages are devoted to articles about appearance.
  • Of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% said that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape, 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight.
  • Women’s magazines have about 10 times the content related to dieting and weight loss than     men’s magazines.
  • Research done in Fiji after TV was introduced found that scores on eating pathology doubled in three years and influenced their opinion on ideal body shape.
  • 2006 Stanford University Study found that 96% of girls who already had eating disorders had visited pro-anorexia websites and learned new weight loss techniques there.
  • A 2011 study from the University of Haifa found that the more time girls spent on Facebook, the more they suffered conditions of AN, BN, poor body image, negative approach to eating and more urges to be on a weight loss diet.
  • The study also found that girls whose parents were involved in their media usage were more resilient to the negative impacts compared to girls who parents were not involved in their media exposure.
  • One residential eating disorder treatment center found that 30- 50% of their patients are actively using social networking sites to support their eating disorders.
  • Dina Borzekowski, professor at Johns Hopkins school of public health notes: “Social media may have a stronger impact on children’s body image than traditional media. Messages and images are more targeted: if the message comes from a friend it is perceived as more meaningful and credible.”
  • 37 percent feel they need to change specific parts of their body when comparing their bodies to friend’s bodies in photos.
  • 75 percent of Facebook users are unhappy with their body.
  • 51 percent of respondents on a survey reported Facebook makes them more conscious about their body and weight.
  • 30 minutes on Instagram can make women fixate negatively on their weight and appearance. 

But because there are positives to it, it’s not something I want to give up.  

Clearly, I need boundaries to keep me safe and that would be my same recommendation to you.  What does that look like?

  1. Being more intentional about when and why you are using it.  Are you scrolling as a distraction, procrastination or boredom?  My husband shared this TED talk with me last week and it’s definitely our new favorite.  I’m sure you’ll love it too and it’s bound to put social media (and phone usage in general) in perspective.  
  2. Unfollow, hide or unlike pages or feeds that are triggering, food and body preoccupied or cause you to “compare and despair”.  This is empowering.  I followed my own advice and cleaned up my business account awhile back.  Now I can scroll through while still feeling super connected to myself, my story and my values.  I follow those accounts that create a safe bubble of food and body positivity and those that are just positive in general.  This could be harder to do with personal accounts because it’s more difficult to unfollow a friend or a family member who could be triggering.  But remember: you are looking out for YOU.  If it’s a problem, have the confidence and courage to say no.   
  3. I have a basic rule I follow when posting on social media:  “Promote what you love rather than bash what you hate.”  I actually do hate diet culture and fitspiration so sometimes that’s difficult to do (haha), but in general I aim to keep any message I share positive and empowering vs spiteful or mean spirited.  There are many accounts that do the same.  Following body and food positive feeds can be a great tool to empower you to positive body image and healthier relationship with food.  

Because actual research studies may not be interesting to read for you, below are some summaries of the literature we have on the interplay between social media, body image and disordered eating.  Before I leave you to that though, I want to make my point really clear: YOU are your own best filter.  Social media can be a huge source of anxiety for you, or it can allow you to connect with positive food and body message.  Be very selective of the type of media you allow in your feed, in your mind and in your life.  

Instagram Photos May Contribute To Body Dissatisfaction

"Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales both researched the relationship between time spent on Instagram and body image. The study examined 350 Australian and American women. The finding of the study revealed that even 30 minutes on the social media app can “make women fixate negatively on their weight and appearance,” according to The New York Post. Additionally, the participants displayed dissatisfaction about their own bodies after looking at “fitspo” images and idolized celebrities."

Social Media and it's Effect on Eating Disorders

"Although social media itself is not the sole cause of an eating disorder, it has fueled individuals to engage in disordered patterns of eating. 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.
With the increased use of social media among peers, it has been increasingly difficult to avoid the constant peer pressure surrounding the ‘ideal body type’. Social media’s presence in everyday life is so large that individuals now care about the opinions of people that they have never met before. Body shamers use social media as a platform to talk negatively about someone’s image and it strongly affects the emotional well-being of individuals who already struggle with their relationship with food."

Media, Body Image and Eating Disorders

"Numerous correlational and experimental studies have linked exposure to the thin ideal in mass media to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating among women."

Social Media and Body Image

"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. 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. Writing in Vice, 24-year-old Ruby Tandoh recounted how a focus on “healthy” and “clean” eating and “lifestyle” enabled her to hide her increasingly disordered eating and deflect concerned peers. “I had found wellness,” she wrote. “I was not well.”"

Facebook Use Impacts the Way Many People Feel About Their Bodies

“Recognize the effect that perusing Facebook photos may have on your self-esteem or body image. How often do you publicly or privately criticize your own body? How much time do you spend comparing your body to other people’s bodies online? Do your comments on other people’s photos regularly focus on weight or appearance? [emphasis intentionally added!] Do you ever get overwhelmed by this? If so, how do you cope?”

How Social Media Damages Your Body Image and What To Do About It

“This is not to say all the weekend warriors and healthy eaters need to censor their posts. Ultimately, the onus falls on the social media “consumer” to figure out what content (and people) are triggering for her so that she can remove these posts or block certain feeds. But, it’s important to know that this type of sharing can be triggering to those who already struggle with these issues.”

I hope this has empowered you to use social media as a tool, not as a weapon against yourself.

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD