Guest post: “Facebook: Body Image Friend or Foe?”

Posted by | April 02, 2012 | body, dieting, internet, media, men, self-image | 5 Comments
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This post originally appeared on the blog of The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Republished with permission.

by Kate Clemmer

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, Pinterest, updated 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. Stay tuned for our next post with suggestions and considerations for using Facebook in a healthy and body positive way.

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 find more information about The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt on our website, www.EatingDisorder.org

Kate Clemmer

ced logo 230px Guest post: Facebook: Body Image Friend or Foe?