Social media impacts body image


Skylar Brown, Staff Writer

Sabrina Arevalo, senior at NDP, struggled with body image and “got caught up in perfection” as she found herself skipping meals and cutting back calories in an attempt to look like an Instagram model.

Now, as she has grown, she has changed her toxic relationship with food and with those around her. She sums up what she has learned by saying, “don’t let looking a certain way become your ‘sole focus’.”

Today’s current culture circulates around social media. The world is now lived through screens big and small. A Seraphim student poll found that almost half, 47.1 percent, of respondents surveyed compare themselves to what they see on social media and want to change a

physical trait or some part of their bodies.

How to combat social media’s effect

The answer of what they would want to change varied in responses such as: body fat, chest, face, looks, and a majority being weight.

“I would want to be prettier and change the way my body looks. I want to be skinny,” an anonymous freshman girl said.

“Social media use has been linked to lower self-esteem, increased depression, risk-taking behavior, and cyber bullying,” reports Haymarket Media, Inc, a privately held media company in London.

Leslie Adams, behavioral health therapist, is a constant observer of teens. A new addition to NDP’s counseling department last spring, she is trained to address problems involving families. Adams also has special crisis training.

But unlike most teachers, she has one-on-one experience with students, as well as faculty, of NDP.

When dealing with behavioral health, Mrs. Adams takes a “holistic” approach, meaning that she looks at the whole person, not just one issue.

The best way to combat the negative effects of social media on self body image, according to Mrs. Adams, is to “give yourself a break when you need it” and to “live life in the experiences you have.”

She placed an emphasis on the power of blocking others on social media, eliminating toxicity, not misrepresenting, and damage of idolization.

Adams said she constantly sees teens on their phones in the halls and around campus, most presumably on some form of social media.

According to research done by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues shaping the world, roughly 95 percent of teenagers, aged 13-17, report that they have a smartphone or access to one. Of that 95 percent, 45 percent admit to being online on a near-constant basis.

Maddie Brunsman, NDP senior, stated that today’s society has some form of actual face-to-face connection now, but there might not be any “real” communication in the near future.

Pros and cons of social media

“[Cellphones are] like having an encyclopedia at your fingertips,” Mrs. Kristin Garcia, NDP student counselor said.

“About 92 percent of teens state that they use the Internet daily, and 71 percent use at least two different types of social media sites,” according to recent studies done by Social Media and Adolescents.

According to Adams, social media proves to have its own list of pros and cons. Social media can be an outlet to express yourself, a place to share creatively, and can create a sense of camaraderie, but it can also pose the threat of being anonymous. People “hide behind a screen name,” which takes the freedom of speech too far, and it is forever, said Adams.

Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and even Youtube have become new forms of groups called “online communities” where teens are posting on a regular basis.

Another way businesses are using social media is to sell their products to children, teens and young adults. These products are not always for the benefit of the consumer and often times they are detrimental to their physical and mental health.

Bennett Curran, sophomore at NDP, is an avid user of social media. Curran is involved in theater in and out of school and is the head of the Drama Club’s social media pages.

Curran said, “[Social media] hasn’t become what it was intended for and has become another way for businesses to advertise and sell products such as juuls and various drugs.”

“[Advertising] was so much more overt in the past and now it’s much more covert,” said Garcia, who used to work in advertising, but eventually left, realizing how it targeted others through manipulation.

Many disagree, claiming that social media is strictly a positive for society. This can be connected to the idea that social media helps people who are shy, socially awkward, introverted, or isolated, connect with other people.

It can also be argued that being an avid user of social media can, in turn, increase one’s quality of life and also reduce the risk of health problems.

An article by Sharon Jayson, published in USA Today, noted that, “other studies in the past two years have found that feeling like a part of a larger group helps in stroke recovery and memory retention and boosts overall well-being.”

Brunsman said she likes social media because “it’s a great way to connect with friends and people with the same interests as you.”

She went on to point out that she has not personally experienced body image problems due to social media, but she is aware of the impact that it does have on others. She concluded that it has both positives and negatives and that there are many people who body-shame others online.

“Some might be friends, family, peers, and even strangers,” Brunsman said.

Curran said that social media started as a way for people to know about others in order to stay in touch, but has instead become a way for people to “fake” who they are and hide themselves.

According to Garcia, a major reason for others wanting to be a part of social media and possibly change their persona online is because of the “innate feeling of wanting to belong.” The reason this occurs and the reason it is a problem is because a teenager’s prefrontal cortex portion of their brain,which handles fully thinking through consequences, is not yet fully developed, she said.

“A cell phone is also as addictive as almost any drug,” said Garcia.

The pressure from advertising on teens and young adults, both boys and girls, is nothing new, according to Garcia. This pressure has been a vicious cycle stemming from as far back as the Renaissance period and beyond.

History of body image and advertising

From the beginning, there have been a set of physical characteristics that have been deemed attractive for women.

“A lot of [body image issues] stemmed from the fashion industry with what they set the for the standard of beauty,” Garcia said.

In the early 1960’s Twiggy, a British model, with a slender frame and boyish physique emerged into the modeling industry and sparked a new ideal for body image: skinny. According to Amber Petty, a writer for the List online lifestyle site, Twiggy was young, beautiful, and plastered in various advertisements, “and her skinny frame and modern, boyish image helped her stand out from the other models.”

Petty also stated that following the skinny body image trend, a new ideal was brought into the media by Marilyn Monroe. She, along with other pin-up girls, got her title for the mere fact that her image was meant to be “pinned-up” on men’s walls.

Today’s equivalent is the beautiful social media post.

According to Jesse Fox, PhD, and his lab partner Megan Vendemia, MA, “Given a primary goal of content sharing about the self on SNSs [social networking service] is to garner social approval or positive feedback, these pictures must reflect optimal traits, including physical attractiveness.”

Progressing from the print advertisements which featured past body types such as Twiggy and Marilyn Monroe, today’s body image issues are centered around social media, which has led to eating disorders. In a study conducted by Fox, it was concluded that “women edited photos more frequently and felt worse after upward social comparison than men.”

Fox and Vendemia based their research on the idea of the “objectification theory” which states that women are taught from society to take in a stranger’s view of themselves and judge their own worth based on other’s social standards, such as putting appearance as a priority.

Their experiment concluded that the women in their study were “already more likely than men to feel negatively about their body and to socially compare their bodies to others, and this in turn predicted negative effects of upward social comparison.”

Social media and eating disorders

The National Institute of Mental Health states that “eating disorders are actually serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors.”

They went on to classify eating disorders as obsessions with “food, body weight, and shape” and that they most often are seen in the forms of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Adams pointed out that the possibility of social media leading to an eating disorder is often rare, but can happen depending on the vulnerability and perspective of an individual.

According to Project Know, an American Addiction Centers’ Resource, because almost all teens have some form of media, “more than half of teenage girls and approximately one-third of teenage boys engage in eating disorder behaviors” which can include taking pills or laxatives, crash diets, purging, binging, anorexia, as well as body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD.

In the case of Sabrina Arevalo, she found herself with low self-esteem and poor body image due to the constant bombardment of social media models and advertisements. This led to her losing weight in order to attempt to look like these various models.

When she found herself at her lowest, she turned to her mom, sought help, ended various toxic relationships – including the one with social media – and now helps others struggling with the same problems.

Adams said that in these situations, “You are not alone.”

Adams’ past patients, from low income families that tended to not have control over many aspects of their lives, would control what they were eating as a sense of control; whereas, other middle or upper class families might place emphasis on what they eat in order to look a certain way or for a popularity contest.

The National Institute of Mental Health highly urged those struggling with eating disorders to seek treatment right away and emphasized how lengthy and difficult the treatment process can be. It is important to get treated because, “people with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide and medical complications” according to to the NIMH.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports, “Eating disorders can affect every organ system in the body, and people struggling with an eating disorder need to seek professional help.”

“The earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the greater the likelihood of physical and emotional recovery,” the NEDA said.

According to Garcia, advertising is a major reason that many feel a pressure to look a certain way or change their outward appearance.

This, in turn, can lead to acquiring an eating disorder, which has become increasingly prevalent due to a recent advertising and marketing outbreak in the media through the use of various social media applications.

Advertising’s influence

Advertising and other companies have been using social media as a platform to share their brand. This includes images of the “ideal woman” or the “ideal man” which often can result in a decline in body image due to comparison.

One of the biggest problems surrounding this comparison is that many of the models that these companies are using to advertise are not real.

Rihanna’s makeup line featured a model that had over 90,000 followers on social media, but was not even real, reports Nick Whigham in the New York Post. Many times the companies do this in order to generate more money without the hassle of dealing with a real model.

“[Their] creation was gathering tens of thousands of followers – and in a world of so-called ‘influencers’ and incessant social media marketing, that sort of attention can translate into big bucks,” said Whigham.

This falsehood can lead to many following a false idol and trying to live up to unachievable expectations and standards, he said.

“[Social media] doesn’t mean much as a male personally, but it’s difficult seeing girls change themselves for other people’s perspectives,” Curran said.

According to  Project Know, “Emerging research shows [social media] may contribute to the development of eating disorders and body dystrophies, in females as well as males.”

It is less common to hear about males struggling with body dysmorphia because “males don’t talk about their feelings or how they feel inferior,” according to Lopez.

Another reason why is because they do not compete with themselves in the same way that females do. This can often be more worrisome because “they aren’t wired to express or talk about how they feel,” said Lopez.

According to Lopez, the best way to handle and prevent body dysmorphia starts with the parents. They should set boundaries around social media and internet exposure and be sure to have conversations regarding the media and fallacies online.

“There are need-to-know symptoms and key signs [when it comes to having a poor body image and or possible eating disorder] and we need to know what they are,” Lopez said.

Kristin Garcia said that within the realm of social media, advertising, and body image, “we are making progress, but it’s been extremely slow.”

Future of social media and how to change

In trying to create a solution to the problem of body image, the first step would be to have inclusive images in advertising and promotions, suggested Garcia.

According to Garcia, this is the most vital step because it influences the majority of those facing the crisis on social media. They are the ones who are viewing these detrimental advertisements and promotions on – and offline every day.

For example, the clothing company, Aerie, has joined the body positivity movement “by refusing to airbrush models in its Aerie Real campaign.” According to an article by Amira Rasool in Teen Vogue, along with aiding in the movement for body positivity, their sales have also increased by a tremendous amount, due to their new inclusive brand.

According to Garcia and Lopez, change will be sparked from entertainers and figures within the media who spread positive messages through the media and their various platforms.

In a recent study done by the child advocacy group, Common Sense Media, it was found that children are starting to develop concerns about their self image and body at much younger ages than previously expected.

It was found that “kids as young as five are already expressing a desire for a body that is thinner than their current self or future self.”

According to Garcia, once advertising starts to use models that look like “real” people, we will start to see a more drastic change in the way body image is viewed in society. Some companies have already, or are currently, changing their marketing by using models of different ethnicities, weights, heights, and cultures.

Another way to help advance the use of technology is through Garcia’s acronym W.A.I.T, which stands for Why Am I Talking? This acronym is used to help decipher why you are posting or commenting something online.

If you ask yourself this question and do not have a good answer or realize it’s to be mean, boost ego, or tear others down… don’t post it. By refraining, this will help reduce online bullying, hate, and overall toxicity.

“Intent is very important,” she said.

This harsh cycle can also be stopped through the help of the current generation and their parents. Through setting parameters for media access for young kids and having open conversations, this struggle with media and its influence on children and teens wouldn’t be as bad as it is today, according to Lopez.

Lopez also said that one of the reasons that students of NDP, and Arizona as a whole, experience such a strong pressure from advertisements is because “we’re so close to Hollywood that we feel it even more.”

She suggested that because of Arizona’s proximity to Hollywood and Los Angeles, one of the biggest advertising powerhouses of the nation, students feel extra pressure to look a certain way throughout the year based off of what they are seeing online.

Lopez suggested that an easy way to combat this negative cycle is to “not be so hard on ourselves” and turn to others for help when in need.

“Go seek help when feeling down, depressed, or just want someone to talk to. If friends or family are not an option, then a therapist can often be the best choice and there is almost always one available,” said Adams.

Arevalo said that the best way to start making a difference today is to realize that “everything should be considered beautiful.”