Social media shrinks the world and that can be a blessing. But for individuals at risk for eating disorders, that has powerful, negative implications.
The feedback from likes, comments and shares can fuel an unhealthy obsession with weight and appearances and provide a fleeting sense of value from external approval.
People with eating disorders typically struggle with their internal sense of worth. While that may not be apparent in their day-to-day lives, it drives their behaviors and makes them more susceptible to overvaluing external approval. Social media provide a way for ordinary people to connect with hundreds or thousands of others. For those with eating disorders, it is offers a new metric for measuring success and value.
Some individuals derive their self-worth from other people, so they use their own posts and photographs to elicit favorable comments. Thirty years ago it would have been difficult for an individual to receive feedback about their body. It would mostly be limited to a few friends or family members. Today, someone can post a photo, perhaps a highly edited image, that on Facebook or Twitter can get hundreds of comments and thousands of views in an hour.
For people with eating disorders, those comments can drive continual obsessions around body, shape, and size. Moderation is typically not a characteristic of individuals struggling with eating disorders. Some think that if some weight loss is seen by others to be good, then more must be better. They filter out the fact that it may have taken them 10 photographs to get the one that they liked and posted. They may ignore the comments that say, “Too much!”
Comments and views become a new metric, joining pounds and inches for those obsessed with weight loss as ways of measuring their value. One way to get more comments is to take more sexualized shots. Women find that cleavage photos get a lot more views; men discover that a torso shot highlighting tight abs and a ripped upper body receive more comments and shares. Both become increasingly focused on getting in shape, burning calories and looking good. It becomes all that matters.
The lack of moderation is fed by the subtle (and not so subtle) selling that infuses social media. Often viewers are not aware that a post comes from a clothing company or a supplement manufacturer or a website with a particular agenda. People with low self-worth, in particular, take the advice and the images at face value. They see the product
They follow the recommendations that purport to help them look better — give up carbohydrates, work out, avoid fat — and they do it to excess. Any respectable personal trainer will tell a client or athlete that rest and recuperation are as important, if not more important, than exercise. The body needs time to recover and build muscle. Individuals predisposed to eating disorders will push themselves to exercise every day. More must be better. If the average person can get shredded in a month, surely they can do it in two weeks. In their minds, rest is for the weak or those who are not truly committed. The desire for true health or fitness does not drive them; the craving for quick results that will earn praise does.
The same goes for food. Real dietitians may recommend reducing carbohydrate and fat consumption and increasing fiber, but almost none would advise cutting out all carbohydrates or all fats. The body needs both, in moderation. Yet, reading posts online could lead one to believe that the path to weight loss and optimal fitness involves abstaining from both. And, those who follow the most restrictive diets often garner the greatest praise on social media. Individuals with or at risk for eating disorders or body dysmorphia hear that praise, those comments, as proof of their attraction and lovability.
The lesson to take from the skewed perceptions encouraged by social media is real health is not sexy. It cannot be packaged in one great shot. The risks of promoting artificial images as realistic goals has recently been acknowledged in the minimum weight requirements and physician monitoring for models in many European countries. It will be harder to insert honesty and health into social media where control rests in the hands of millions. Until that happens, the unrealistic messages, Photoshopped pictures and praise for unhealthy habits on social media will continue to fuel the pathological desires of those with eating disorders.