Body Image and Social Media: The College Perspective

We’re stressed here at UC Berkeley. New and challenging social situations coupled with the pressure and desire to achieve good grades don’t make the transition to higher education any easier. If you take a day off, not only will you be generally behind as a result of missing class or procrastinating on assignments, you’ll be extra behind because nobody around you took a day off and they’ve capitalized on your temporary lapse in work ethic and driven that A-/B+ cutoff even higher. It’s not clear whether this is actually what happens, but it certainly does feel that way.

We’re also well aware that social media has had a lasting and pretty unprecedented impact on our lives as students and young adults. In the age of smartphones and incessant social media uploading, posting, and updating, our lives have become intertwined with and nearly indistinguishable from the cosmos that is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.

As younger teens, we are instructed by parents, teachers, and other professionals to be wary of the digital space. “Beware of cyberbullies, and don’t cyberbully” is usually about the extent of our online education. We are also taught about the “unrealistic” and “unachievable” thin, white, and Western body and beauty standards perpetuated by mass media. Television, magazines, and advertisements do not represent or cater to real bodies, and the majority of these onscreen or on-paper images have been retouched, reshaped, and redone. This likely, and understandably, does not make us feel much better. Constant exposure to unrealistic and manufactured “beauty” can certainly have negative effects on body image and self-esteem.

Currently popular are “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” Instagram pages, or “thinspo” and “fitspo,” whose messages focus on promoting thinness, health, and wellness. A search of “#fitspo” returns over 39 million tagged posts on Instagram alone. These pages have evolved from websites and blogs with similar names and goals. However, the distinction between a healthy relationship with food, dieting, weight loss, and exercise, and anorexia is further and further blurred. These pages literally glamorize bony bodies and restricting food intake under the guise of promoting “healthy” diet and weight loss, and given the influence of social media on our lives, their impact is not insignificant. Uneducated and unqualified individuals who access and create these pages may promote destructive habits and diets that can lead people down the path towards harmful disordered eating and excessive exercise all in the name of “dieting,” “health promotion,” and “wellness.”

In extreme cases, some pages go so far as to call themselves “pro-ana,” or “pro-anorexic.” A study conducted by Northeastern University confirmed that pro-eating disorder websites have negative effects on body image and eating pathology of viewers. A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that the most prevalent themes on “pro-anorexia,” including “thinspo” platforms, included control, success, and perfection. These can become dangerous mantras in the name of health. Of course, not all diets and fitness regiments are potentially harmful and dangerous, but it’s important to check that the people and organizations backing these healthy habits are qualified to do so.

If you think you notice a friend veering towards dangerous eating or exercise behaviors, it can be really difficult to reach out. So, what can you do as a concerned friend? Stay concerned. That’s already doing your friend some good. Other tips include reaching out frequently and in a noninvasive manner, doing your best to communicate your concerns about your friend’s eating or exercise behaviors specifically and honestly. Ask your friend to meet with a professional who is familiar with eating issues. If your friend is unwilling, continue to be supportive and continue to reach out to them. They may not be ready now, but that might change over time. Most importantly, avoid shaming and blaming. Avoid accusing them of anything and avoid simplifying the problem. “You just need to eat” or “take a day off from the gym” and similar statements completely disregard the root of the problem. These tips have been adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association.

UC Berkeley’s Tang Center also offers resources that may be helpful. Under the counseling tab on their website, there is information about treatment available to students with eating disorders. Tang houses a team of health care providers who help students with these eating issues. They are all specially trained and understand the processes of diagnosis and the challenges that come with recovery, so you are sure to be in good hands.  They also provide anonymous online screening that may help you understand your own behaviors if you notice they are starting to become damaging.

It turns out that there are some also pretty incredible steps taken for eating disorder recovery on the internet. I found myself particularly taken with Recovery Warriors, a social media platform and website dedicated to “boosting the emotional intelligence and resilience of people struggling with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.” This website is brimming with resources, with everything from podcasts to articles about recovery, music, soul, and art. The contributors include trusted doctors and nutritionists who provide their professional insight into managing eating disorders and negative body image.

The fact is this: Eating disorders really suck, and often times they are hard to catch, easy to ignore, and can leave lasting negative impacts on lifelong relationships with food and exercise. Social media can be an insidious player, especially in the lives of college students. But if you know where to look, it can also be constructive and may even aid your recovery. The key lies in finding the right balance.