The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

What’s Really Going On with Facebook & Body Image?

The results of our recent survey regarding the intersection of Facebook use and body image have been highlighted by various news outlets over the past two weeks.  We discussed the implications of the survey results here (and as a guest post over at The Illusionists), drawing attention to the fact that 51% of the 600 survey respondents said they often compare themselves to others while on Facebook and that seeing photos on Facebook makes them more self-conscious about their own body and weight.  Additionally, 32% endorsed feelings of sadness when they compare their body to other people’s photos on Facebook which, for most people, is at least once a day if not more.

Facebook: Body Image Friend or Foe? at The Illusionists.org

We originally set out to do this survey because we were finding that patients with eating disorders were meeting with great difficulty in the recovery process when it came to logging into their Facebook accounts.  In fact, before we released the full survey results, one user on our Facebook page left the following comment:

Facebook definitely played a role in fueling my eating disorder symptoms and behaviors.  Most people only post pictures that glamorize their bodies and social life…There have been multiple times throughout my recovery that I have deactivated my account because the things I was seeing online were fogging my view of reality.  Realizing that the site was doing more harm than good for me has made me more aware of the things I post on my account.  I think it’s important to make sure we are trying to foster a safe and healthy community and we can only do that if we first change the way we act… .” –  Facebook User

While some media outlets have gone as far as to say that Facebook is a cause of negative body image and eating disorders, others have dismissed the significance of the results as par for the course in our  image and weight-obsessed culture.  Others, including this editorial assistant over at Allure Magazineonline, have spoken up in a personal, and humorous, way about the modern realities of  this pressure-to-be-perfect in Facebook photos. Despite the varied reactions, one thing became clear to us following the survey;   Individuals with eating disorders are not alone in their battle with body-obsession on Facebook.   

Since the survey, we’ve been asked multiple times about how body-pressure from online social media differs from the toxic messages we’ve been getting for decades from fashion magazines, commercials and weight-focused friends?   The answer: the content itself is nothing new to us as a society – conversations that are hyper-focused on weight loss, diets, bikini bodies, and who looks “hot or not” – but the delivery and dissemination of it is new.  We’ve noticed the following characteristics of online communities are unique in how they can potentially affect the relationship we have with our bodies: 

  • Accessibility – Online social networks never turn off.  Even when you’re by yourself you’re often not far from your laptop, iPad or Smartphone and the lure of logging in to Facebook.  In the past, waiting in line at the store might have included…waiting in line.  With a smartphone it could easily be spent browsing Facebook pics from your old college roomate’s beach vacation or reading about Aunt Sally’s 37th time going on a diet.  For better or worse, we have a lot more visual information at our fingertips than ever before. 
  • Immediacy – your status update or photo can literally be seen (and commented on) around the world in a matter of seconds.
  • Lack of control over what other people post and how people comment on it.
  • Two-way street– unlike with magazines or commercials, Facebook not only allows you to see photos of other people, but allows them to see photos of you.  Maybe even more importantly, YOU are seeing public photos of you which can sometimes create the most body anxiety, especially if your instinct is to zero in on all of your supposed “imperfections” in each picture.
  • Business or Pleasure? – there’s a unique mix between the personal and business realms on Facebook.  Users often use one account to stay connected with friends/family but also occasionally promote a product or business in their posts and photos.  This means we get advertisement-like messages about beauty, exercise and weight-loss products from people we like and/or trust.  Confusing? Definitely.     
  • The sheer number of people you are connected to on Facebook is more than you would ever casually socialize with on a Friday night. The thought of hundreds or even thousands of people zeroing in on what you imagine to be “imperfections” can be overwhelming when it comes to body insecurities.  (It’s important to remember that no one else is ever looking at you or your body in photos as closely as you are!) 
  • Body Comparisons while on Facebook take on new meaning because you’re seeing real people.  Unlike magazines and advertisements which feature [heavily photoshopped]models and celebrities, photos of Facebook friends may, unfortunately, feel like a more realistic or welcoming comparison.  

The truth is, when you get caught up in comparing yourself and your body to other people (online or off) you can’t win.  Blogger, Margarita Tartakovsky, shares her journey out of this comparison trap in How To Stop Comparing Yourself To Others, in which she reflects:  

When you’re rarely satisfied with yourself, your self-worth is shaky, and you see others’ lives as almost perfect – or definitely better than your own. You  constantly search outside yourself, and as a result, you knock yourself down. For many of us, comparing ourselves just changes stripes from time to time. One day, we want someone else’s abs, biceps or hips. Another day, we want their smarts or style. A few days later, we want their family life or financial situation.  Until we can truly believe in ourselves, the comparisons will swirl and sabotage…It’s interesting that now that I accept, appreciate and believe in my body, the physical comparisons have mostly quieted.

The trap of body negativity and comparisons on Facebook can certainly be difficult to avoid, especially if your online social atmosphere includes a lot of people who place a high value on appearance-only qualities or happen to be caught up in the diet mentality themselves.  The impact can feel much more powerful if your body image is already in a fragile state as is often the case for individuals with eating disorders and those recovering from eating disorders.  

The great news is that you can mold a more positive online experience for yourself.  If you’ve reflected on your Facebook use,  assessed its impact on your body image and realized that too much of your social networking time is spent feeling worried or sad about how you look, than it may be time to set some changes in motion.

You can start by vowing to maintain a body positive Facebook profile – this means not engaging in fat talk, self-criticism, diet discussion or body snarking while on Facebook. Once you’ve made the decision to do so, you can find tips and suggestions for incorporating body positivity in our post, Social Networks ~ Building a Body Positive Presence Online.

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