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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Body Image Friend or Foe? How is Facebook affecting the way you feel about your Body?

ABC-2 News Interview - Does Facebook Make You Feel Fat?

Over the last year, major social networking and blog sites have taken steps to protect users from  dangerous Pro-ana and Pro-mia communities online.  These are sites that promote eating disorders as a way of life, instead of a genuine mental illness, and create an atmosphere that normalizes and encourages extremely dangerous weight-loss behaviors.  Most recently the popular photo sharing site, Pinterestupdated their policies regarding inappropriate content to include Pinners and boards that feature “thinspo” or “thinspiration” – images of dangerously thin bodies meant to motivate or inspire users to pursue greater weight loss.   While banning this content won’t cure eating disorders, it can certainly help to protect vulnerable individuals from tapping into these dangerous websites. 

Though somewhat hidden in “underground” niches across the web, the dangers of online pro-eating disorder sites have been well-documented, and we commend Pinterest, Facebook, and Tumblr for taking a stand to protect their users from these sites.  But perhaps more unsuspecting in their effects, are mainstream social network communities: general sites like Facebook that we all use everyday to keep in touch with friends and family across the world, to post pictures of our kids and pets, to share birthday wishes or follow favorite organizations.  

Have you ever thought about how Facebook use is affecting your relationship with your body? 

Recently, The Center for Eating Disorders commissioned a public survey of Facebook users age 16-40 and found that, for most Facebook users, the answer to this questions is actually quite concerning.  In response to the survey we found:

  • 51% of respondents said that seeing photos of themselves on Facebook makes them more conscious about their own body and their weight
  • 32% said they feel SAD when comparing Facebook photos of themselves to their friends’
  • 44% spend time wishing they had the same body or weight as a friend when looking at photos on Facebook
  • 37% said they feel that they need to change specific parts of their body when comparing their bodies to a friend’s body in Facebook photos

Now consider that 80% of the respondents in our survey reported that they log on to Facebook at least once a day and more than half of them log on several times each day.   Thus, we see the set-up  for a daily stream of negative body image thoughts which could potentially impact one’s self-esteem.

Recent articles on CNN.com and NYTimes.com have drawn attention to the heightened role that online social networks play in adolescents’ relationship with their bodies, specifically with regards to the sexualization of teens’ online photos.  Most recently, the self-esteem website Proud2BMe.org  featured a collection of sobering quotes  from real teens regarding their body image and Facebook use, a few of which are excerpted below:

“People get positive attention in the world by losing weight. And you can do it to an even greater extent on Facebook.”-Anika, 18

“It’s only the ‘standard beauty’ who gets the ‘likes’ I feel like to be the hot girl, you have to be like that, or wear your shirt too low and your skirt too high.” -Kirby, 18

“When looking at images of girls in a magazine almost all us know that they are altered electronically to appear perfect. When it comes to social media such as Facebook, most believe that they are looking at raw pictures, or ‘real girls.’ Whether this is true or not, they are ultimately used as a standard of comparison.    -Mary

What may be even more sobering is the reality that this mindset is not unique to adolescents. Survey results indicate that this is not just a phase we pass through or something teens will necessarily grow out of.   Respondents included adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s confirming that they experience similar patterns of body negativity and weight obsession when using Facebook.   

Body negativity on Facebook is not to be considered just a women’s issue either.  In this survey commissioned by CED, 40% of the male respondents agreed that they sometimes write negative comments about their own body in photos posted on Facebook (whereas 21% of females agree to doing so).

What do we gain from publicly, or privately, criticizing our bodies and constantly comparing our bodies to one another?  Does anyone really benefit from congratulating or praising people when they post about weight loss or diets in their Facebook updates?  Weight obsession and body shaming certainly isn’t new, but online social networks are creating a new frontier that seems to be publicizing our body insecurities while magnifying society’s love affair with diets and weight loss. CED’s associate director Dr. Steven Crawford had this to say in response to the survey results:

As people spend more time thinking about what’s wrong with their bodies, less time is spent on the positive realm and engaging in life in meaningful and fulfilling ways.  When people become more concerned with the image they project online and less concerned with holistic markers of health in real life, their body image may suffer and they may even turn, or return, to harmful fad diets or dangerous weight-control behaviors. We hope the results of this survey encourage people to really look at how their online behavior affects their outlook, and we caution them against being overly critical of their own bodies or other people’s bodies while on Facebook and other social networking sites.

Consider reflecting on your own Facebook use and how it could possibly be affecting your relationship with your body.   We suggest asking yourself the following questions to discern whether certain online behaviors or patterns are harming your self-esteem or body image:

  • How often do you publicly or privately criticize your own body while online?
  • How much time do you spend comparing your body to other people’s bodies online?
  • What percentage of your status updates focus on weight, diets or exercise? 
  • Do your comments on other people’s photos regularly focus on weight or appearance in a negative or positive way?  
  • How do you feel when you look through friends’ online albums? Do you ever get overwhelmed by this?  

It’s important to remember that Facebook, and social networking in general, is a wonderful way to stay in touch with and connect to other people and organizations.  Facebook certainly doesn’t cause negative body image in and of itself.  It does however, provide lots of fuel for the weight-obsession and body criticisms that already burn out of control in our larger culture.  This can be particularly worrisome for individuals who already struggle with severe negative body image or eating disorders.  During a recent interview with ABC-2 News regarding the survey results, CED Director, Dr. Harry Brandt added that,     

Facebook may be another step in our culture that promotes self-consciousness about appearance and feelings of low self-worth around [the] body, and those are significant factors in the proliferation of eating disorders.

If you find that you’re using Facebook as an outlet for feeling badly about your body, comparing yourself to others physically, or hyperfocusing on appearance and weight in your posts, it may be time to renovate your page.  Check out these follow-up posts:

Do you have suggestions? Want to share about you own experience?  Join the conversation, and start the movement towards online body positivity on our Facebook page.

You can findmore information about The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt on our website, www.EatingDisorder.org