Addressing body image anxiety in an era of social media

Having a negative body image can contribute to low self-esteem, which in turn can take a toll on your mental and emotional health. When you have a negative body image you are more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed, which in turn can often mean that you spend less time prioritising your mental and physical health.

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Suffering from a poor body image and the impacts of body image—one of which could be eating disorders, but also depression and anxiety—are increasingly reasons for people seeking psychological support. Problems with body image issues can be progressive over time and have the potential to lead to body image disorders, conditions that have escalated to such a degree that they are causing significant distress and impairment. 

Longitudinal research studies have shown that body image problems experienced during early adolescence are the most concrete predictor of the development of eating disorders. The seriousness of this can perhaps be better understood when we consider that individuals who have high levels of body dissatisfaction are four times more likely to develop an eating disorder. In addition to this, research has demonstrated that poor body image has been closely linked with an array of other mental health difficulties such as anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and suicidality.


The impact of social media

It is difficult to point to causal research data that would imply that social media actually causes an eating disorder or body image disturbance, or difficulties. However, what might be reasonable to say is that the influence of social media (and various forms of other media too) has been significant vehicles in exacerbating conditions that are perhaps already in existence. The impact of reality TV programmes has also been influential on how a lot of people feel about their own body. 

Sometimes users of social media can be highly avoidant of posting on any platform because of their poor body image issues. Or users might publish posts seeking some form of confirmation or a kind of personal validation from other users.

They might experience very positive feedback when using filters, having achieved weight loss or having applied extra make-up, for example. It can become a vicious cycle when caught up in this behaviour when people dialogue with their own internal sense of shame. It is not uncommon to endure guilt and remorse after spending time online using social media apps when in pursuit of some form of emotional fix from other users.

There has been a rise, globally, of more unrealistic body images, and finding more expression on social media platforms, such as being thin with curves. That type of ideal body image is usually completely unrealistic without enduring excessive diet and exercise or more probably by engaging in cosmetic intervention. This is occurring more for men too.

There might be less of a global ideal for men, the only thing that perhaps attracts globally for men is tallness, but, nonetheless, there is a gradual movement towards more unrealistic ideals here too. More and more men are suffering from body image anxiety, and more young men are suffering from eating disorders, although a lot of men feel the same shame and stigma about acknowledging their behaviours and seeking help.


What can society do?

We perhaps all have a role to play in reducing the stigma around body size and physical appearance. The negative comments around bodies and physical appearance that are often considered to be normal could be seen as little other than bullying culture, if we reframed such behaviours. The prevalence of so-called appearance bullying is one of the most common forms of bullying in schools but is often the one that we do the least to address. This is partly because it is not a protected characteristic. As a society we have not adequately named such behaviours, yet. 

We could seek to change the cultural attitudes and thereby reduce the pressure on people suffering with poor body image if we tried harder in the same way as ‘wolf whistles’ and sexist name-calling of women was gradually named.

There was a time when women who were cat-called or had their bum pinched was met with a defensive belief system that said that such behaviours were a compliment and, therefore, deemed to be acceptable. Perhaps as a society we could turn back the clock somehow in the way that we talk about other people’s bodies and cut out a lot  of the negativity. This could go some way to change the culture around body shaming and reduce the pressure on people to look a certain way.

In the framing of obesity in public health policy, obesity is regularly portrayed as a burden. With the release and publication of each new report on obesity, there can be headlines such as “We spend too much money on obesity. It’s a problem. We are the worst in Europe. We are the worst in the world in terms of prevalence.” It is almost like people who are obese are deemed to be lazy, gluttonous and selfish. Yet such language does not support the findings of the 2007 Foresight report which showed the complexity of obesity and weight gain.  

This report adopted a strategic 40 year timeframe and speculated about how the UK could respond sustainably to rising levels of obesity. That report showed that there were over 100 different factors that contributed to obesity, including economic, social, psychological, genetic et al. Public health promotion messages that say that we should “eat less and move more” as a focus for obesity, might actually be simplifying a very complex health condition. A far more intelligent public health messaging system could view obesity in a multilevel and multidisciplinary way.


How counselling can help

Counselling can offer you a safe and private space to explore past body-shaming experiences and how these might have impacted your body image today. Poor body image can be highly discomforting.

Counselling sessions can unpack the source of the discomfort and look at how this discomfort gets triggered and activated. You could also explore what is behind the validation seeking on social media. So, you could ask yourself which part of you is needing that emotional fix, and why? Counselling can help to make conscious some of your behaviours that have appeared to be automatic.

It is important to not just see yourself in terms of what you look like but how you can take better care of yourself holistically. Taking a holistic view of your life should include biological, social, physical and psychological dimensions in addition to learning about a healthy diet and knowing the facts about nutrition.

Sometimes it can be worthwhile exploring the role of perfectionism in seeking to understand behavioural change. It might be that you are not striving for perfection in your appearance, but rather that the self-critical element of perfectionism may have predisposed you to developing body image problems. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & SE26
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Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the Psychodynamic, CBT, Humanist, Existential and Transpersonal schools.

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