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The Effect of Social Media on Mental Health and Body Image in Women

For women worldwide, building self-esteem and developing a healthy body image has long been a challenge. Conversations about female pride and “body-positivity” have been growing into more extensive discussions among mental and physical health professionals and young women during the past few years.

The rising popularity of image-centered social media like TikTok and Instagram creates a toxic environment for developing female minds. This paper intends to discuss the relationship between social media and different kinds of eating disorder behavior in women.

Seeing an endless barrage of images online that have more likely than not been posed, edited, or otherwise made to portray an unrealistic body or lifestyle expectation can cause women to develop unattainable and unhealthy goals for themselves. 

As a young woman working in media with personal experience with eating disorders and mental health issues, I am acutely aware of the effects of trying to maintain a particular image of yourself in the public eye. Women’s success can be partly dictated by how physically appealing we are to others.

When this process is displayed right in front of you in numbers of likes and dislikes, it can solidify the association in the minds of impressionable young women between looking a certain way and being happier and more popular.

In evidence of this, Jacqueline V. Hogue, a York University psychologist, argues that how social media posts affect young women goes back to real-life social hierarchy and peer interaction. Her research suggests that engaging with family or peers considered equal did not negatively affect how women viewed themselves. 

Furthermore, she claims that women’s body image is affected not simply by seeing photos of others but specifically when the subject interacts with pictures of women they self-determine to be more attractive. Usually, this determination aligns with the amount of interaction that woman gets from other people on their page compared to the subject.

The problem is people are more likely by nature to interact on social media with things they find visually attractive or stimulating. This makes it incredibly difficult for women to break out of this cycle where they follow women that display unrealistic body types, then feel worthless for not looking that way, and unhealthily restrict what they eat.

In recent decades, eating disorders diagnoses have been on the rise, which is also the period in which many trailblazer social media sites, like Facebook and MySpace were created and quickly gained popularity. A study conducted from 2000-2018 found international eating disorder prevalence rose from 3.5 to 7.8 percent during those years. It also suggested that eating disorders were more common among women than men, with a mean eating disorder prevalence of 5.7 percent in women and only 2.2 percent in men. 

Anne M. Morris, a clinical psychologist, suggests that the different effects of social media on men versus women have to do with the gender biases already prevalent in our society. Women are more likely to see social media images and develop eating disorders because the societal ideal for them is portrayed as being thinner or smaller. For men, however, the unrealistic goal is to be bigger, stronger, and more muscular, which leads to different self-image issues than what we see in women. 

Moreover, Morris’s research found that adolescent women determined to be a medically average weight often were still dissatisfied with how much they weighed or what they looked like and were actively trying to become smaller. Restrictive eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or avoidant restrictive food intake disorder affect men less prevalently because social media pressures them to gain rather than lose weight.

With that in mind, it can be challenging to recognize this behavior in yourself or others before it becomes a severe issue. The rise of calorie-counting apps and trendy diets in combination with the effects of social media have made it easier than ever to take losing weight too far without drawing any attention. 

People can start well-meaningly, thinking they’re doing all the right things by keeping track of food intake and hours of exercise. Still, it can quickly devolve when individuals are working out or losing weight with the sole motivation of looking a certain way. 

Psychologically speaking, people with restrictive eating disorders can become highly competitive with others, constantly comparing themselves to thinner individuals they see no matter how much weight they lose. Social media compounds this process by putting the thinner bodies right in front of you, making it nearly impossible to avoid.

Partly because of the pedestal social media creates for unrealistically thin bodies, individuals with eating disorders usually cannot recognize their behavior as unhealthy. They will resist treatment or intervention because they have not yet reached their “goal weight” or desired body type.

Recovery is rarely short or linear because individuals must retrain themselves; both in their appetite and their thought processes. It takes time, effort, and commitment to pull oneself out of the cyclical and toxic mindset eating disorders encourage, but it certainly isn’t impossible.  

There are many communities that offer support for people struggling with eating disorders. There are of course inpatient recovery options, but there are also helplines, counseling, support groups, mentorships, and other programs. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone, and there are people out there who want to help you.

 The National Eating Disorder Association and National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders both offer some of these resources for free. These resources are not only for people with eating disorders; they also offer support and advice for family and friends.

There are so many complex factors that can positively or negatively affect the mental health and self-esteem of women. Some social media trends uplift and bring women together, like the body positivity and #MeToo movements, which help women by allowing them to feel supported and represented.

However, the pressure on women to be thin has, to a certain extent, become unavoidable with the rise of modern visual-based social media. To combat this, we must be sure we are teaching people to value more than physical appearance and social validation. 

 In conclusion, a new emphasis on media literacy and body positivity in the future could allow ensuing generations of women to move about with the confidence they deserve. People should be compared not by how they look but by what they contribute to the world around them. 

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