How Does Social Media Affect Women’s Body Image and Mental Health? And What Can We Do About It?
Written by: Thrishala Gunathunga
Social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat have changed the way we live our lives, don’t you think?
They have become such an integral part of our daily routines, whether we’re connecting with friends, sharing information, or just scrolling through endless content.
But you know, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to social media.
As much as it has revolutionised the way we connect and consume media, it has also brought about some serious problems, especially when it comes to women’s body image and mental health.
Unrealistic Beauty Standards on Social Media
One of the biggest ways social media affects women’s body image is by creating unrealistic beauty standards. It’s everywhere you look, especially on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. They are just flooded with carefully curated images of bodies and faces that seem absolutely flawless.
Even the majority of celebrities and influencers show an idealised version of themselves, using filters, editing tools, and various poses. These kinds of unrealistic representations can make women feel inadequate and dissatisfied with their own bodies.
And let’s not forget about all those ads and sponsored content. Instagram, in particular, seems to have lots of information about beauty products, diets, and cosmetic procedures.
Sure, it can be helpful to promote a healthy and beautiful lifestyle.
But constantly being bombarded with these messages can really mess with our heads. It’s easy to start feeling dissatisfied with our own bodies because we’re comparing ourselves to these unrealistic standards.
How Social Media Contributes to Mental Health Issues
Recently, Cataldo et al. (2021) revealed in an eye-opening review that when young people are exposed to fitspiration trends, it can actually lead to some unsafe behaviours and negative mental health outcomes.
One thing they mentioned is self-objectification, which basically means that instead of focusing on our abilities and who we are as individuals, we start to see ourselves as objects to be judged based on our appearance. Further, they stated that it can also increase the risk of developing mental health conditions like eating disorders, mood and anxiety disturbances, substance misuse, and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
BDD is a real mental health disorder, even though it’s often dismissed or downplayed. One of the main symptoms is the preoccupation with perceived flaws in one’s appearance, which can lead to significant distress and impair daily functioning.
It can then lead to the development of eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. And it’s not just our mental health that takes a hit. Our overall satisfaction with life can reduce, and it can even affect our relationships and social activities.
Cataldo et al. (2021) even found that it can up the chances of something called Muscle Dysmorphia (MD). Basically, it’s when someone becomes super obsessed with getting really muscular, to the point where they spend way too much time lifting weights, become overly fixated on their diet, and might even misuse supplements.
It also revealed that young adults between 18 and 25 who consider themselves slightly overweight can end up feeling excluded like they don’t fit in, and even describe themselves as feeling hideous. It’s just heartbreaking to think that social media can make people feel this way about themselves.
The Impact of Constant Exposure to “Perfect” Lives
The impact of social media on mental health extends beyond body image concerns. One thing that comes up a lot is a phenomenon known as FOMO or the fear of missing out. It’s when we see other people having these amazing experiences online, and we start feeling inadequate, lonely, and anxious because we’re not doing the same things.
And you know what? It’s not just about experiences. Women especially can feel this pressure to show off a perfect, desirable life, even if it’s not true. This constant exposure to others’ seemingly perfect lives can also create unrealistic expectations and contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Understanding the Impact of Cyberbullying and Body Shaming
Social media platforms can also amplify body shaming and cyberbullying. Anonymous users can easily make derogatory comments about someone’s appearance, perpetuating a toxic culture of body shaming.
Women are particularly vulnerable to these negative comments, which can significantly impact their self-esteem and mental health. Constant exposure to such negativity can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression.
Taking Control: How to Navigate Social Media’s Effects on Body Image and Mental Health
So how can we take control of social media? One effective strategy is to limit our screen time. Engaging in activities that promote self-care, such as exercise, practising mindfulness, and connecting with loved ones offline, can also help combat the negative impact of social media on mental health.
Studies, like the one conducted by Hrafnkelsdottir et al. (2018), have also shown that reducing screen time (below 5.3 hours a day) and increasing vigorous physical activity (more than 4 times a week) can lead to fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and life dissatisfaction among adolescents.
So, by prioritising these activities, we can nurture our overall well-being because we deserve to feel good about ourselves, regardless of what those trends try to tell us.
And remember to always:
- Be kind to yourself and keep in mind that nobody is perfect.
- Follow social media accounts that celebrate body positivity, diversity, and self-acceptance.
- Set boundaries and allocate specific time slots for using social media.
And above all, know that what you see on social media often doesn’t reflect reality. You are amazing just as you are, and you deserve all the love and respect in the world.
- Cataldo, I., De Luca, I., Giorgetti, V., Cicconcelli, D., Bersani, F. S., Imperatori, C., … & Corazza, O. (2021). Fitspiration on social media: Body-image and other psychopathological risks among young adults. A narrative review. Emerging Trends in Drugs, Addictions, and Health, 1, 100010. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.etdah.2021.100010
- Hrafnkelsdottir, S. M., Brychta, R. J., Rognvaldsdottir, V., Gestsdottir, S., Chen, K. Y., Johannsson, E., Guðmundsdottir, S. L., & Arngrimsson, S. A. (2018). Less screen time and more frequent vigorous physical activity is associated with lower risk of reporting negative mental health symptoms among Icelandic adolescents. PloS one, 13(4), e0196286. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196286