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Social Media Effects on Body Image: Is Your Favourite App Bringing You Down?

A woman with blonde hair lying in a sofa looking at her phone

Social media is everywhere. Apps full of content invite you to scroll for hours and hours. While it’s useful to keep in touch with loved ones, and fun to browse aimlessly, what are social media effects on body image?


No matter how much time you spend on social media, one thing is clear: People have opinions on everything, and they aren’t afraid to show it. 


These strong opinions can impact the way you see the world around you. More importantly, they can impact the way you see yourself. 

Social media and the effects on body image have been studied and discussed for years. So why do we still have such a hard time with it? And what are the effects exactly?


What are social media effects on body image?


For us to understand the effects of social media and body image, we need to understand how our brain functions. And one of the main things in our brains that cause social media to effect our body image are mirror neurons.


Mirror neurons, sometimes called the “mirror system” are a huge part of the way our brains learn. In fact, your mirror neurons fire when you see another person doing just about anything. 


When we’re babies, the mirror system is a huge part of how we learn to walk, talk, speak, play, and even how we learn empathy. Mirror neurons are why people watching a boxing match sometimes punch the air, and why your mouth might water when you see someone else eating. 


Mirror neurons are also why social media effects on body image can be so troublesome.


When you see someone online talking about losing weight, your mirror neurons are likely to start firing, telling you to copy them. Only you can’t always copy what you see, because sometimes it’s simply not real. 


As many as 81% of people won’t post a picture without editing it


If we were given a bowl of berries and told that 81% of them were poisonous, we probably wouldn’t touch them! How could we trust that any one of those berries wouldn’t hurt us? Yet when it comes to social media, we gladly edit photos and assume social media effects on body image don’t apply to us. 


Oh, but they do. 


Those mirror neurons keep firing, regardless of whether we think we’re above them. They shout, “You need to copy them! You need to fit in! You should look like that right now!!!” 


As if seeing photos and videos of unrealistic bodies weren’t bad enough, the words that accompany these images are usually drenched in fatphobia. 


What is fatphobia? Fatphobia is an irrational fear or hatred of fat bodies, especially when it comes to your own body. It’s feeling that “fat” is the worst thing you can be, and obsessing over anything that can “save” you from having a fat body. The more fatphobic content you see, the greater effects social media has on your body image.


Most social media accounts preach fatphobia to some degree, and when you see those fatphobic comments over and over again, your brain starts to interpret self-hatred as “normal”.  


Actors talk about their strict diets and vigorous workouts for their upcoming projects. 


Stick-thin influencers share their “secret” dieting shake (with a discount code, of course). 


A close friend posts a caption or comment that says, “I look SO fat in this pic” with a crying emoji. 


The biggest reason social media effects on body image can be so negative? Unless you do something to break the cycle, self-hatred usually gets worse over time. It starts with being self-conscious only when you post a photo. Then anytime you take a photo. After a while, you’re hating yourself all the time, even when you’re not thinking about social media.  


So social media and body image do have a very strong connection, and unfortunately, the relationship is usually a negative one. So why do we keep going back for more? 


Social media and self-hatred


Just because you know about the negative effects of social media and body image, doesn’t mean you’ll stop using it. Even if social media makes you feel worse about yourself, you might feel like you simply can’t disconnect from it. That’s because our brains get a massive rush of dopamine when we spend time online. 


Dopamine is a pleasure chemical that drives just about everything we do for fun. Exercise, music, food, games, social interactions, and sex all release dopamine. 


Basically, whenever your body says, “Hey, this stuff’s great! Let’s find more!”, that feeling is, you guessed it, dopamine.  


Dopamine and mirror neurons work together to cause social media effects on body image. Even if you feel bad about yourself after seeing all those edited photos, your brain loves those photos while you’re online.


The “dark side” of dopamine is, the crash. Whenever your brain believes it doesn’t have enough dopamine, you can begin to feel anxious and depressed. This prompts you to seek out things that will cause a spike in dopamine. (Like scrolling through social media again.)


Increased dopamine sensitivity can be one of the symptoms of binge eating, but it’s linked to extreme use of social media, too. The more time you spend online, the higher the levels of dopamine in your blood get. 


Even with the negative social media effects on body image, just seeing and interacting with other people gives you the dopamine your brain craves. So you feel better at first, and then miserable afterwards.


It’s not unlike how emotional eating can affect you. 


What is emotional eating? Emotional eating is eating to cope with your feelings, whether those feelings are good or bad. 


Do you want to reach for a tub of ice cream after a hard day? That’s emotional eating. 


Do you feel the need to eat or drink certain things while celebrating? Yup, that’s emotional eating too. 


Since social media, emotional eating, and binge eating have similar effects, they can lock you into a cycle. 


You might scroll social media then feel anxiety. Then, you see a wave of “perfect” bodies and start to feel bad about yourself, so you binge to cope with that. After a binge, you might feel the need to start dieting, so you go back to social media for inspiration. 


So how do you break the cycle? 


Breaking the cycle


Take a deep breath. 


First, I want you to know that none of this is your fault. You probably didn’t create an Instagram account so you could hate yourself. Your brain is hardwired to love social media, even if it’s making you feel negatively about yourself in the long run.


Next, it’s time to start practising body kindness and self-love. It’s time to stop dieting and negative self-talk. It’s time to make gentle plans for what to do after a binge. Whether it’s bingeing on food, alcohol, or even social media scrolling.


You can practise how to handle seeing edited photos when they pop up, and to avoid seeing an endless stream of them every time you’re online. 


You DO have control over the algorithm to some degree. If you request to see less of certain images, and stop engaging with the ones that upset you, you can design a feed that helps you feel positive. 


Be aware of what kinds of posts and creators trigger a response of self-hatred. Listen to your body and mind when you see, hear, or read things from a particular account. Do they help you love your body? Or do you start to feel uncomfortable, anxious, ashamed, or even afraid?


If you feel bad when you see them, unfollow them! An influencer with a following of thousands may not even notice you’re gone, but you’ll notice social media effects on body image start to change for you. If it’s a friend or family member’s account that makes you feel bad, you can hide their content without unfollowing. 


The good news is that seeing people loving their real bodies confidently can help you practise body kindness as well. Mirror neurons aren’t all bad! When the messages you’re seeing and hearing change, they fire up and tell you to change, too. 


As you’re unfollowing accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, look for accounts that create positive social media effects on body image. 


There’s a growing community of people dedicated to putting real bodies online. They encourage unfiltered, unedited, honest posting – and share everything from healing their struggles with body image and food to their authentic everyday lives.


Imagine what your feed would look like if the social media effects on body image were positive. You might see and hear messages like, “I love the way I look”, “I love the way my body lets me experience the world”, and “I am so much more than beauty standards. What if you could talk to yourself that way? 


You can! It just takes some practice. You weren’t born hating yourself, it took years of being told that it was “normal”. You can learn that body kindness is normal, too! 


While you’re practising, follow some of these accounts:


Learning to love your body


Good news! Social media effects on body image are reversible. 


But, when it comes to your relationship with your body and food, social media isn’t necessarily the issue. The issue may be the kinds of people you surround yourself with. 


If you surround yourself with people who treat you (or themselves) badly, you are bound to feel bad about yourself. If you surround yourself with people who treat you well, you will start to feel better about yourself. It’s as simple as that! 


Learning to love and listen to your body is never a linear journey. You won’t follow new social media accounts and feel better about yourself overnight. 


Social media effects on body image are powerful because of the social aspect. Our brains love to copy, so it’s all about finding people who can help your new way. 


Online, that looks like people who normalise real bodies. Normal bodies have fat and muscle! Normal bodies have loose skin, acne, and freckles! Normal bodies will never live up to edited, posed, airbrushed photos, and that’s ok. 


They don’t need to. 


Offline, that can mean all kinds of things. Sometimes one of the best ways to offset negative social media effects on body image is to remind yourself that social media is not real life! Enjoying the real world around you can help you detox from the harm the digital world is causing you.


Go on walks and enjoy nature’s perfectly imperfect beauty. Pick up some binge-eating books to help you heal your relationship with food. Stop dieting – and I don’t just mean the diet you’re on. I mean stop dieting altogether! Set boundaries with friends and family members – no body comments allowed! Build yourself up with verbal or written affirmations. 


You can even join a support group – online or in-person. When you’re ready to transform your relationship with food and your body, and truly begin to listen to your body and what it needs, you can start with my webinar on food freedom


My programmes create a supportive, non-judgemental community. And we’ll be here to comfort you through your struggles and celebrate your successes every step of the way.

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