Is 'selfie culture' driving body shame and eating disorders?

In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was ‘selfie’. This was in response to the rise of social media (in particular, Instagram) and has increasingly become an accepted part of our culture.


Since then, the obsession with taking pictures of ourselves has become more prominent with other social media platforms such as Snapchat becoming widely used. On the face of it, taking pictures of ourselves seems to be harmless, after all, there is nothing wrong with taking pictures to aid memory, when we’re having fun with friends or to take note of when we are feeling good about ourselves.

On the other hand, there is a cost to our mental health.
We have never been as obsessed about the way we look and present ourselves to other people because of the number of selfies we see online. On top of this, social media algorithms are very smart to push certain looks and body types towards us, often making us feel inferior. We have also become more geared towards likes and approval from others, often taking over other important areas of our lives.

It's no surprise that depression and anxiety are increased through increased/obsessive social media use, as it can make us feel less and less in control of our lives. Mclean, Jarman and Rodgers’ (2019) review of the literature [1] found viewing selfies online has a negative impact on well-being and body confidence. From an ED perspective, the focus on looks and body image only serves to give us false messages about the way we should look, rather than accepting and embracing who we are. 
Things become more complex too when you consider the vast amount of filters available and the ease at which they are accessed. Want a filter to get rid of your spots? It's just a swipe away. Want a filter to make you younger? Slimmer? Change your bone structure? They are all available through various social media platforms and apps. It begs the question, does our selfie ever really truly represent the person we are? With all the different filter options available it’s no wonder people are spending more and more time in pursuit of the 'perfect selfie’.

Even more alarmingly, there has been a rise in cases of people visiting plastic surgeons wanting to look like their filtered versions of themselves [2]. This relates strongly to a phenomenon being dubbed ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’, where we are comparing ourselves to our filtered version ourselves [3]. Going back to the dangers of spending time editing and filtering our photos, Lonergan et al (2019) found photo manipulation to correlate with greater body dissatisfaction [4].
The stats related to selfies are limited and not from the most reliable sources but the stats we have available to us regarding selfies are alarming: 

  • According to a poll of 2,000 people from the Beauty site, FeelUnique, women between the ages of 16-25 spend five hours a week taking selfies. [5]
  • In 2022, an estimated 92 million selfies were taken a day worldwide, around 4% of all photos taken. [6]
  • 50% of teenagers edit photos before posting them. [6]

From my work as a counsellor, it’s logical and easy to see that our obsession with selfies and social media has made us more anxious, more body conscious and generally less satisfied with the person we are. As a result, ‘selfies’ and social media can be significant driving forces for eating disorders and disordered eating. What tends to happen is we find ourselves in an unconscious negative loop:

  • Step 1 – We use social media and take in negative messages about body image and looks.
  • Step 2 – Our self-esteem and body confidence lowers.
  • Step 3 – We turn to social media as a distraction or for approval.
  • Return to step 1.

It’s a loop very similar to an eating disorder itself where the problem is also a coping mechanism and provides ‘brief relief’ from anxiety and distress. Social media can offer a nice escape sometimes from our day-to-day distresses, but as with everything, moderation is important.

Don’t be fooled by the internet. It’s cool to use the computer, but don’t let the computer use you.

Prince Rogers Nelson

More and more I work with individuals who have not developed (or have left behind) healthy activities and hobbies such as reading, painting or going for walks. I always try to make clients aware of the positive impact of having preferable coping mechanisms to turn to. That said, breaking cycles such as the ones previously mentioned can be very tricky. It also evidences how an eating disorder can have negative cycles within negative cycles! We have run a few sessions around social media in our Waiting Well sessions - here are five tips that may help to break the cycle:

  1. A good trick to practice is to really take notice when walking down the street. Take notice of the vast range in body shapes/sizes and facial features, we are not designed to look one set way, social media just aims to confirm our biases about what is ‘attractive’ or ‘desirable’.
  2. Take note of the impact social media and ‘selfie taking’ is having on your life. Are you missing other important things? How does it make you feel? What other more productive things could you be doing?
  3. Remember that you can control your social media consumption by unfollowing unhealthy accounts and limiting your time on it. 
  4. When you see an image that makes you feel inferior ask yourself; why has this image been posted? What is its purpose? Is it true and authentic? 
  5. When posting yourself, ask yourself why you are posting it? Is it for likes/approval?

As with anything that triggers our insecurities or activates our threat system, it's important to have something that helps us soothe. This could be a distraction, visualisation, writing down your feelings or, as previously mentioned, it could be a positive activity you turn to.

In counselling sessions, we can break down the impact social media has on your life by analysing the impact on your relationships, work and sense of self. Counselling can also help to explore the need for approval or where the impact of judgements from others has played a role in your life. Often these maladaptive assumptions of “If I don’t look good, people won’t like me”, come from previous negative experiences or comments from friends/family members (even if intended to be positive).

Most of all though, counselling provides a safe non-judgemental space to explore these feelings and have a perspective outside of yourself. It can be easy to get overly wrapped up in social media, likes and selfies. Developing an identity away from that is extremely beneficial to your well-being. 



The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Derby, Derbyshire, DE1 1UL
Written by First Steps ED
Derby, Derbyshire, DE1 1UL

Danny Morley is one of First Steps ED's passionate therapists and specialist support officer. Danny and the team work throughout the Midlands and further afield, to provide support for individuals and families affected by eating difficulties and disorders.

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