How the Media Affects Our Self-Image and Eating
It’s no secret that some body types are considered attractive today, and some aren’t. All you have to do is turn on your television or open Instagram to be inundated with images of slim, super-toned, blemish-free bodies that all start to look alike.
These images can impact your self-perception as you compare your body to what you see on the screen. Research shows that the more time you spend scrolling, the worse you’re likely to feel about yourself, and the resulting negative body image can lead to harmful behaviors.
Keep reading to learn more about what you can do to counteract the media’s negative messaging about body image.
Why Unrealistic Images Are Destructive
Body image is what you think and feel about your appearance. The attitudes you develop about your body in childhood influence how you see yourself as an adult, and according to a 2010 study the factors that impact these attitudes from an early age are family, friends, and the media.
Negative body image isn’t something you’re born with, and it can lead to unrealistic and impossible expectations of what your body should look like — and even to eating disorders.
A 2018 study found that social media exposure might go hand-in-hand with negative body image and disordered eating, especially when you’re scrolling through content focused on physical appearance, like following celebrities and fitness gurus on Instagram who are working hard to present a perfect image.
"From an early age, kids learn from movies, television, video games, and toys about what they’re expected to be and look like in adulthood — like bulging muscles and aggressive or heroic behavior for men, and lithe, skinny bodies and soaring popularity for women."
“The media portrays an image of ‘perfection,’ which is unattainable because it doesn’t exist,” says Brooke Aschidamini, Nutrition Therapist and Dietitian of Parkland Nutrition. “We are constantly chasing what we need to “fix” about ourselves to be desirable, attractive, successful, and happy. The media . . . send[s] messages that something is wrong with us. The problem is . . . creating a surge in disordered eating, eating disorders, emotional overeating, body image disturbance, and orthorexia — the obsession or hyper-fixation with healthy/raw eating.”
From an early age, kids learn from movies, television, video games, and toys about what they’re expected to be and look like in adulthood — like bulging muscles and aggressive or heroic behavior for men, and lithe, skinny bodies and soaring popularity for women.
But comparing your real-life appearance to the heavily filtered and manipulated images in the media can do damage to your body image and leave you feeling dissatisfied and discouraged.
Photoshop, filters, and more let us edit images to the point that they may no longer reflect reality, and a 2017 Harris poll showed that almost two-thirds of US respondents edit their photos before posting to social media. In an article for Insider.com, Jill M. Emanuele, PhD — who is the senior director of the Child Mind Institute’s Mood Disorders Center — describes these manipulations as creating “a distorted fantasy world [that] raises the bar on what people perceive is 'the best' way to be."
The Relationship Between Media and Eating Disorders
Studies show that preoccupation with weight and trying to emulate celebrities’ bodies can be indicative of being at higher risk for eating disorders. For instance, a 2017 study of college women in the US concluded that time spent on Facebook is related to an increase in negative body image, as well as increased symptoms of disordered eating in those wanting to lose weight.
According to an article in the Turkish Online Journal of Qualitative Inquiry, “Mass media plays a significant role in eating disorders by supporting unreal slimness and beauty images.” When you compare yourself to impossible ideals of beauty manufactured by the media, you can end up feeling pretty dissatisfied with your own body and might start unnecessary dieting, weight training, or even consider surgery in pursuit of an unachievable goal.
A 2002 study of the influence of television on eating behaviors and attitudes in Fiji found that from 1995 to 1998, beginning with the islands’ initial access to Western television, adolescent girls in a culture that values curvier bodies went from virtually no dieting behavior to patterns of dieting and bulimia. Afret three years of Western TV, a whopping 74-percent reported feeling “too big.”
We’re also exposed to about a bajillion sugary snack and fast food commercials alongside those idealized bodies. This is particularly problematic for children, who develop food likes and dislikes by observing the eating behaviors of others. Research shows a strong correlation between television viewing and unhealthy eating habits for children — and these early bad habits can extend into adulthood.
And if you’re trying to develop healthier habits or recover from an eating disorder, the barrage of manipulated images of “svelte success” and “fat failure” on the screen and in magazines can make it even harder.
But there’s plenty you can do to counteract negative messages about body image, and there are even some ways that social media can help.
How to Counteract Negative Messaging
“Body positive” social media content promotes appreciation and acceptance of all shapes and sizes, and studies show that exposure to positive content leaves women in a better mood and feeling better about their bodies, too.
"Advocates of body positivity and influential figures definitely have a unique ability to make a positive impact on how people view themselves and their bodies, especially when it comes to young people,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Neha Chaudhary, MD, for Insider.com.
But if you feel worse after scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, give yourself permission to take a break — and then gauge how you’re feeling after you’ve disengaged. If you’re feeling better, it might be a good idea to schedule periodic “social media fasts.” You can also unfollow accounts that make you feel bad and look for body-positive communities online.
It’s a good idea to be both mindful and selective about media consumption, starting from a young age. “Media time” can be a planned activity rather than an automatic habit or something that drones on in the background. When loading SnapChat or Facebook is a conscious choice and not a mindless habit, it’s easier to make better decisions about where and how to invest your time.
For younger people and children, media literacy education can help when it comes to learning to evaluate and question the images on our screens.
MediaSmarts says the three most important things to remember — and to teach kids — about the media are:
- What you see and hear on TV and social media don’t necessarily reflect true reality.
- Manufacturers and advertisers make their money by selling you their products.
- History is full of varying and shifting ideals of beauty.
We can all learn to be more critical of the shows, movies, and video games we engage with. For instance, we can notice the differences in body types between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and consider how that feels. Are the protagonists hyper-masculine, unrealistically fit or thin, or overly sexualized? What about the antagonists, and the secondary or non-player characters?
Other considerations when viewing media content is to consider why we’re attracted to a particular photo. Are we drawn to the colors or the scenery, or is the eye drawn to an unrealistic body type? Which posts get the most “likes,” and why? And when it comes to posting your own content, think about any editing or filters you’ve used to make something look “better,” and what it feels like to see those “likes” and comments pile up (or not). Is this who you are in real life?
"Cleveland Clinic recommends developing affirming habits like refocusing self-talk on recognizing and appreciating all the good things about your body, like being a good dog walker or skilled at building pillow forts."
In our 24x7 online world, it can be difficult to remember that we are so much more than our bodies, and that our worth stems from what’s on the inside. Cleveland Clinic recommends developing affirming habits like refocusing self-talk on recognizing and appreciating all the good things about your body, like being a good dog walker or skilled at building pillow forts. Another recommendation is a daily practice of writing down five things you love about yourself. Regularly engaging with friends and activities that remind you of your many awesome qualities — like game night with your best buddies or a regular yoga practice — is another way to counteract negative messaging and boost self-esteem. And complimenting other people, as you learn to curb comparing yourself to them, is another great way to make everyone feel good.
But if you’re feeling like you’re at the mercy of negative feelings about your body that are causing distress and disruption, it might be a good idea to bring this up with your primary care or mental health provider as a step toward working through negativity and toward embracing yourself just the way you are.
Regardless what the media says, physical beauty is fleeting and capricious. It’s not only possible but even beneficial to love and appreciate your body whatever your shape or size.“Here’s the thing: there isn’t anything wrong with us. We are all worthy of love, food and happiness, just as we are,” says Aschidamini, “no strings attached.”