How Social Media is Harming Your Body Image (and What You Can Do About It)

Trigger Warning- The content of this blog post discusses weight loss and weight loss photos which may be triggering for someone with an eating disorder or disorder eating. Please proceed with caution.

You begin scrolling through Instagram like you do every day after work. Most of your feed is filled with “fitspiration”- photos of thin and muscular women, clean and healthy meal ideas, and inspirational quotes like “Nothing tastes better than pretty feels”. You purposely chose to follow these accounts in hopes they would inspire you to take charge of your health, to begin eating healthier, and to lose weight.

However, the more that you look at these posts, the more you realize how horrible you feel about your body. You begin to think to yourself, “I’ll never look like these women. They spend hours in the gym and eat perfectly each day. I can barely motivate myself to go for a walk or eat a salad, let alone dedicate my time to looking like them.” Over time, you begin to feel frustrated with yourself, believing you lack the willpower and self-discipline to lose weight. These thoughts slowly destroy any resemblance of self-confidence you have left.

Like you, many people look to social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok to inspire them to “improve their health”. There are thousands upon thousands of accounts dedicated to promote this goal. You can find just about anything from fit influencers to weight loss journeys to health care clinicians providing you with an abundance of information meant to help you with your health goals. Unfortunately, social media can also have a significant negative impact on your own body image.

“Fitspiration” Might Not Be So Inspirational

“Fitspiration” accounts are designed to help motivate you to “take control” of your health through exercise and nutritional changes. While the intent behind these posts may be harmless, they have been shown to cause increased body dissatisfaction in the viewer (aka people like you)1.

These photos consistently lack a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Rather, they portray thin, toned, and athletic women who are consistent with the thin ideal (the perception that the “ideal woman” has a thin, feminine body)1. The limited body diversity seen in “fitspiration” promotes the idea that only certain body types can be considered “healthy”1. Likewise, many of these photos show one particular body part (toned arms, six-pack abs, etc.) which causes the objectification of the female form1.

Compared to images of celebrities, the photos seen on social media platforms can be even more harmful to your relationship with your body. Research has shown that the images on social media posted by peers rather than celebrities cause greater social comparison1. Because the women on social media can easily be your neighbor or best friend, their success can be seen as much more obtainable. If your body does not look like theirs, you’re more likely to experience negative body image. This may cause you to feel like you lack the willpower, self-control, or self-discipline to shrink your body to match this thin ideal.

The Cautionary Tale of “Before and After” Photos

If you look at the hashtag #weightlosstransformation on Instagram, you will see over 10 million posts comparing before and after photos. 10 MILLION POSTS. Likewise, you will find over 27,000 people posting weight loss tips on Facebook. On these two platforms alone, you’re bombarded with images of people encouraging you to shrink your body in the name of “health”.

When you look at the comment section under any of these posts, you will see comment after comment congratulating the person for their hard work and dedication. “You look so much better now! Tell me your secret!” This type of image further promotes the thin ideal- that unless you look like the “after”, there is something wrong with your body. However, your body is not a “before” and “after” project. It deserves to be respected as it is in this moment.

How to Create a “Safe Space” in Your Social Feed

person in a larger body engaging in joyful movement

Social media is not inherently an evil facilitator of bad body image. It really depends on how you use these platforms. There are many accounts and community groups that promote body neutrality and self-love. There are even hashtags dedicated to help inspire you to work towards body acceptance. These hashtags include #bodyneutrality, #bodydiversity, #sizediversity, #losehatenotweight, and so many more. Use the following steps to create a “safe space” for you and your body image on your social media feeds.

1. Do A Bit of Clean-Up

Take the time to go through the accounts you follow. Ask yourself, do these accounts make me feel good about my body? Or do they promote one body type as “healthy” or “ideal”? If the answer is yes to the second question, consider unfollowing that account. Likewise, if you have a friend on Facebook that constantly discusses their weight or health behaviors in a way that makes you feel negatively about your body, consider muting their posts so you’re no longer exposed to that type of content.

2. Be Mindful of “Weight Loss Journey” Accounts

Again, this type of account tends to promote the idea that your body is something that needs to be changed, which can make you feel worse about your body. Another potential problem with these accounts is that they often recommend very low to low calorie diets in order to lose weight. This calorie goal is NOT ENOUGH for an adult and following it can lead to long-term nutritional deficiencies. Not to mention, these accounts often demonize food by labeling them as “good” or “bad”. Any mention of “cheat meals” should be a huge red flag that this account can negatively affect your relationship with food and your body.

3. Follow Accounts that Promote Body Diversity

The beautiful thing about social media is that it is a platform for people all around the world. This means there are millions of people of all shapes and sizes, gender identities, and ethnicities. By increasing the diversity of the people you follow on these platforms, you normalize the idea that all bodies are “good”, including your body! This normalization can have a huge positive impact on the improvement of your body image.

If you’re looking for more content for the promotion of body neutrality and fat liberation, feel free to follow me on Instagram and TikTok @thewittyavocado. I have also created a private Facebook community designed to help promote body acceptance. You are more than welcome to join us!

Tiggemann, M and Zaccardo,M. ‘Strong is the new skinny’: A content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology. 2018; 23(8):1003-1011.

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