Maintaining positive body image in an era of social media  

Do you struggle with maintaining a positive body image after using social media apps? Do you find yourself extremely preoccupied with a perceived flaw in appearance that to others may not be noticed or appears to be minor? If the answers are 'yes', then it may be that using apps such as Snapchat and Instagram are exacerbating your anxiety about how you look, or it could be that you are suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

BDD, occasionally still called dysmorphophobia, is a mental disorder characterised by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one's own body part or appearance is severely flawed. In BDD's delusional variant, a flaw is either imagined or if the flaw is actual, its importance is severely exaggerated. The condition can lead to some individuals taking exceptional measures to hide or fix their dysmorphic part on their person. This could, in extreme circumstances, involve seeking cosmetic surgery to ‘rectify’ a perceived flaw or self-harm.

Do social media apps actually cause body image problems?

There is certainly a lot of understandable concern about the impact of social media, particularly on young people, such that a new phenomenon called 'Snapchat dysmorphia' has popped up recently. The term is intended to better explain why people are seeking out surgery to help them appear like the filtered versions of themselves that they see online.

There is a lot of debate about whether social media and specifically, apps like Instagram and Snapchat, actually cause mental health illnesses such as depression or BDD. The sheer scale and speed with which social media has become an integral part of our lives, especially for young people, means too little is known about its real impact. There has been some recent research data potentially pointing to social media links to anxiety and depression, but these studies may also be pointing to no more than correlational data than actual causality. In the absence of robust longitudinal studies, it is difficult to be sure one way or the other whether social media is actually causing the problems.

What is pretty clear, however, is that for those who suffer from BDD the use of such apps can certainly exacerbate anxieties about body image and worsen feelings of anxiety and depression. 

Body dissatisfaction potentially affects anyone, but the socially embedded nature of the issue means that certain demographic groups may be more at risk than others. While the idealised body shape amongst young women tends to be focused on a slender body with fuller hips and breasts, young men typically aspire to develop a muscular physique.

There might be social barriers to accessing care. An emphasis on not appearing weak may explain why young men, for example, often feel unable to access support with body image issues, as boys tend to be socialised to be strong, self-sufficient and not to be emotional. This could be one reason why front line educational and health professionals may be slower to recognise and engage with body image issues in this group.

Using filtered images is not necessarily a sign of a problem

People have always used pictures of celebrities (and now more likely Snapchat-filtered versions of themselves as reference points), and that in itself is not evidence of problem behaviour. It is common, after all, to use images to style one’s hair, match clothing lines and to appear a certain way to the outside world. The real risks tend to emerge when the images are used not just as a reference point, but how you see yourself, or when you want to look exactly like that filtered image. These filtered selfies can be especially dangerous for individuals suffering from BDD. The filtered images can have harmful effects on those with BDD because such people may more severely internalise this beauty.

As well as being undesirable in itself, body dissatisfaction is associated with a range of poor outcomes in other areas. Poor body image might not on its own be a mental health problem. However, a number of studies have found that poor body image might predict depression, anxiety and some eating disorders. It is also important to say that depression and all mental ill-health conditions often arise due to a range of complex factors, usually a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.

Seeking help for BDD

People suffering from BDD often have had negative experiences with health professionals. Young people, for instance, who present at their GP with body dissatisfaction may be treated as if they are going through a “phase” rather than exhibiting a symptom which could indicate serious mental distress. If this was your previous experience it is important to know that awareness about the condition is, however, now far greater in general practice.

If you are worried and feel that you might have BDD you could speak first with your family doctor. They can discuss with you potential treatment options, including possibly making arrangements for formal assessment, if appropriate, as non-medically qualified practitioners are not able to undertake this task.

People suffering with BDD often want to undertake a course of cosmetic surgery. Surgery, however, should not be something that is chosen until you are sure what you really want. It is important to not make hasty decisions, as surgery can worsen underlying BDD and could potentially set off an insatiable set of actions in search of inner approval.

Counselling and psychotherapy can help in a practical way by using cognitive and motivational strategies to address your underlying belief system about why you feel the way you do. Having someone to listen to your worries who is non-judgmental and has no vested interest in the choices you make can help to make you feel better so that you may be better able to assess future decision-making. Additionally, these talking strategies can help to explore the pros and cons of pursuing additional steps in a non-judgemental manner. Poor body image can often mean that there is underlying depression, and depressed feelings can be initially alleviated by activity-scheduling, as well as cognitive restructuring techniques.

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

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited 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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