Is it hard not to view your body through the lens of social media these days? You may not even be aware of this tendency, but it can be harmful to body image and thus your mental and emotional health.
We all understand the complexities that come from our self-perception as well as the worries of what we assume other people think about us. We also have our desires and intentions for who we want to be, but create false expectations of how to become more sociable and outgoing. We swim in this pool of impressions and ideas about who we are, who we want to be, who people think we are, and end up drowning in them.
We can sometimes deliberately set up a false idea of who we are and present that to people on social media – that we are smarter than others, or more empathetic, that we care about the environment, or that we’re taller than we are, and everything in between. At times, we can even manage to pull the wool over our own eyes and pretend to be something for so long we start to think it is the truth about ourselves.
Human beings are complicated creatures whose self-perceptions and perceptions of reality can be wide off the mark. We are reminded in the Bible that:
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.’ – Jeremiah 17:9-10, NIV
We can deceive ourselves, and we can deceive others, but the truth about who we are and where our value and worth are to be found in the Lord. This matters immensely, especially when we see the pain, confusion, disappointment, and discontent that we generate in our lives and those of others.
There are almost 4 billion users worldwide on the various social media platforms, and with the tool of social media now in our grasp, our ideas (whether good or bad) can spread much further than ever before. Like everything else that we create, we can use social media for good and it can be a positive thing for us, but it can also cause much harm.
The good and the ugly about social media and body image.
The effects of social media on our self-understanding, including our body image, impact men and women alike. We get messages from the overwhelming volume of social media platforms and feeds about what is good, what people like and value, and what is important.
For young men, they may be consumed by a preoccupation that some psychologists refer to as “bigorexia,” where they struggle with not feeling muscular enough. They feel like they must be strict with what they eat so that they can lower weight and build bigger muscles.
It was a big deal during the pandemic some male celebrities decided to show off their pandemic “dad bods;” a big deal because such “imperfection” is rarely on display so people can feel free to just be themselves and not fall prey to the beefcake culture so prevalent today.
Between the movies we watch and our social media feeds, there is a proliferation of muscular male bodies that can have a negative effect on these men, such as by making them feel inadequate and anxious. This is not to discredit the images that for far longer have focused on women’s bodies and sought to idealize certain body types, skin types, hair types and so on.
Your body image, which is a composite of the thoughts and feelings that you have about your body, is shaped by many things, include social media. Whether it’s on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, or other social media platforms, the things we see posted there can impact how we see ourselves.
The things people like and share all generate an impression of what matters. We find ourselves wanting to emulate what generates positive interactions and activity on our feeds too.
Not all social media is bad, because there is some good that can flow from it. One positive of social media is that it provides us with the opportunity of seeing more people that look like us because the platforms are democratized, and you can find a channel, feed, or voice that addresses your specific concerns. All you need is an internet connection and a device to access, capture and transmit content.
One helpful outcome has been the growth of the body positivity movement that has created space for body types and shapes you wouldn’t have seen on traditional media platforms. Content that is body positive acknowledges and shows an appreciation and acceptance for all types of bodies, which helps people to feel more at home in their own bodies. It works to shift one’s mindset about the ideal body image as society sees it.
Social media also allows us to connect with like-minded people and those who have similar experiences. We can thus forge community with others who will help us to foster a healthy body image; for example, a group for survivors of breast cancer can encourage each other.
Though good can come of social media, there is bad that can come with it too. Some of this is connected to what you choose to use social media for, and how much room you give social media to shape your perceptions. Often a dominant message can filter through your feed that is hard to avoid.
Typically, people tend to put their best foot forward, and that’s the case in person and also on social media. And so, we will post our best photos with the best lighting showing our best side, and even that can be filtered further using various bits of software.
During the pandemic most of us had to use Zoom, and we began to see our faces more than ever before. Zoom can touch up your appearance, and with facial filters and editing apps we have the capability of tapping and swiping away our blemishes with a quick click or tap.
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a mental illness that affects one in 50 people in the United States, has to do with the gap between our expectations and reality concerning our bodies. It can lead to anxiety, social isolation and seeking out cosmetic surgery to correct apparent defects.
Our ability to filter and airbrush ourselves now means that we can now heavily edit our looks, and we find ourselves comparing ourselves not only to airbrushed celebrities and social media influencers, but also to our airbrushed peers and ourselves.
The term “Snapchat Dysmorphia” was coined in 2018 by Dr. Tijon Esho, a plastic surgeon, to describe the growing phenomenon of people looking for cosmetic surgery to achieve their filtered face in real life.
Around 55% of plastic surgeons in 2018 reported that their patients’ surgeries were motivated by the desire to look better in their selfies, with younger female clients making specific requests for chin augmentation, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, facelift, or submental liposuction surgery based on the filters they use on their social media.
Social media can set impossible standards that are hard to meet, and that’s probably because almost no one can meet those physical standards. The idealized lives and bodies portrayed on social media, including our own, are a façade.
Depending on how you curate your social media feeds and the algorithms you trigger through your searches and most viewed content, you may invite a cascade of images and ideas that will likely undermine a healthy body and self-image.
An unhealthy body image that is rooted in unrealistic standards and expectations about what you should look like has been correlated and connected with unhealthy behaviors such as disordered eating.
A study conducted in 2015 discovered that female college students that spent more time on Facebook had a poorer body image and felt more concerned about their bodies due to unfavorable comparisons with others such as their peers. It appears the more time one spends on social media platforms such as Facebook, the more frequent body and weight comparisons one makes and the more negative feelings about one’s body develop.
How to overcome the negatives of social media.
While social media can have many positives, it also has significant negative impacts on a person’s body image. To overcome some of these negatives, you can take these steps:
Don’t get immersed.
Unless you have to be on social media for work, there’s no real reason to remain plugged in all day long. It’s one thing to scroll mindlessly through your social media feeds when you’re bored, but it’s another to do so regularly during the day. Even those mindless scrolls can leave a bad taste and affect you negatively.
Value authentic and embodied connection with others over social media. That may mean that you should take a break from it and connect with the human beings in your life over a cup of coffee or tea. Engage in other activities that have nothing to do with social media. Use your time and energy to invest in things that have little to do with your appearance or comparing yourself to other people.
Follow wisely and stop the comparison game.
As with the rest of life, be careful who you follow on social media. If you use social media for connection with other people, use it to connect with people whose lives you actually know and interact with in person.
Social media has a certain unreality about it – if you know the day-to-day lives of the people in your social media feed, you’re less likely to form a distorted impression of what’s real and what’s not, in their lives and in your own.
To maintain a healthy body image, stop the comparison game, because whether you’re comparing yourself to celebrities, influencers, or to your peers, there’s danger in doing so.
When we compare ourselves to others, especially distant peers, or acquaintances, we place ourselves at greater risk of developing body image issues because their real lives are unknown to us. We can get caught confusing the façade for the reality of who they are, increasing the possibility of creating unrealistic expectations of ourselves.
Curate your social media feeds.
In addition to the above, if you need to, unfollow certain content and content creators. Some research has suggested that “fitspiration” content, which typically features fit and beautiful people exercising, tends to make you harsher on yourself.
Consider focusing elsewhere.
In this life, we only have finite amounts of energy and time to give to the things that matter. While body positive content is great because it promotes self-acceptance, there’s a downside to it, which is that it’s still keeping the focus on bodies, and it promotes the objectification of those bodies.
Find feeds that help you focus on qualities such as your skills or personality, and on things such as inspiring landscapes or life hacks that can help you to remember that there’s more to life than what you look like.
It’s important to recognize that your true worth lies elsewhere, and that what will last transcends your looks and the shape of your body. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30 NIV), and that wisdom applies to both men and women.
Our bodies have value, and we should care for them, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what has ultimate importance – “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8 NIV).
If you need help overcoming distorted views of yourself, you can meet with a Christian counselor to discuss how social media is affecting you.
“The Woman In the Mirror”, Courtesy of Taylor Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Reflection”, Courtesy of Laurenz Kleinheider, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Social Media”, Courtesy of Josue Ladoo Pelegrin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Smiling Woman”, Courtesy of Hannah Busing, Unsplash.com, CC0 License