Body image in the age of social media – what I've learnt

I grew up in a time where social media didn’t exist and the use of cellphones was limited. Instead of endlessly browsing health tips and recipes on Pinterest, my vice was buying magazines – especially wellness and fashion magazines.

Print media often got (and still get) a bad rap for the way social standards are portrayed, especially when it comes to weight and wellness. My idea of a healthy weight was determined by the models who graced the front covers. As a young teen at the turn of the century, anything skinny and grungy was considered beautiful, and I wanted to follow suit.

In lieu of at-home YouTube workout videos, I had a collection of Tae Bo DVDs, torn out workout pages from magazines (does anyone remember those?), a CD-wallet with mixed CDs labelled "workout tunes" and an old stationary bike I inherited from my mom. Even though I despised school sport, I wanted to stay in shape. Exercise and wellness was my escape, my control, my relaxation. 

Body image on a screen

Imagine that mindset in the current age where we're inundated with wellness and health influences (bloggers, YouTubers, Instagrammers), all spewing conflicting (and sometimes unattainable or false) information to someone young and impressionable.

Suddenly I am glad my visual inspiration was limited to the two or three glossy magazines my monthly allowance could provide.

As I move to a more balanced concept of what a “healthy” lifestyle entails, I find myself unfollowing more and more accounts as I go along. I now refuse to believe that I am less healthy simply because I don't have activated almonds, bunches of kale and scoops of powdered collagen in my morning smoothies.

I am now an adult with a firm grasp of who I am and what is good for me. This took some time for me to achieve. Yet I sometimes still have nagging doubts and wonder if the fish and non-organic vegetables I lovingly prepare at home are “clean” and healthy enough, or if my HIIT workout was gruelling enough.

Too much of a good thing?

I do, however, worry about the teenage girl scrolling through her Instagram, believing she is too fat or that the meals she is served at home are bad for her simply because they're not from some fancy vegan café or online organic store.

Or what about the teenage boy who admires his body-building heroes but simply can’t afford expensive supplements or access to an exclusive gym? 

While the health and wellness industry has exploded exponentially over the past decade in terms of superfood, fitness and calorie-tracking apps, and more accessible information via different social media platforms, one can't help but wonder if this isn't too much of a good thing. Are we being guilted by an overdose of kale smoothies and burpees?

I'm not the only one who's concerned. Research has suggested that the mere act of scrolling through a fitspiration (a term coined to describe content aimed at inspiring others to be fit) post can trigger unhealthy eating and exercise behaviour.

In a study, 130 female undergraduate students were exposed to either fitspiration or neutral travel images. The scientists found that, unlike the more neutral images, the fitspiration pictures had a negative impact on the students' overall mood, body-image and self-esteem. 

Pro-ana and other ugly triggers

I asked Dewald Louw, a counselling psychologist at Montrose Manor, an eating disorder treatment facility in Cape Town, how they deal with patients undergoing eating disorder recovery in terms of exposure to social media. As a part of their recovery process, a social media block-out is recommended in order to avoid negative triggers.

This includes the negative effects of the numerous pro-ana (anything that promotes or encourages anorexia) websites – where people with eating disorders give each other tips and advice on how to starve themselves, with pictures of extremely thin women serving as inspiration. (I was 19 when I stumbled across these, well before the arrival of Instagram.)

These websites are sometimes shut down and banned, but the type of imagery has found a loophole via Instagram. Unfortunately the lines are blurred, because while one hashtag (#proana) may be banned, others (#thinspiration, #fitspiration, etc.) slip through.

It has, however, been argued that an online community may provide valuable support for those recovering from eating disorders.

An unfollowing-spree

The presence of what is attractive and what not can indeed be problematic in an era of influencers and social media. We are led to believe that only expensive superfoods are healthy and only thigh gaps and collarbones are deemed attractive. Fortunately, however, there is a lot more body positivity and balanced eating material appearing on the internet these days.

My only tip? I unfollowed accounts that I couldn’t relate to and that failed to influence me in a positive way. I only kept influencers who have a realistic approach to health, who make recipes from ingredients I can afford and obtain, and who post workouts that I can do in the gym or on my bedroom floor in 30 minutes. Social media doesn't have to dictate how I should eat and exercise, but it can surely have a positive effect if utilised correctly. Calorie-tracking apps have their place, as long as they're used sensibly.

Protect your teenagers

How can you ensure that your teenager retains a healthy body image in a sea of influencers? Eating Disorder Hope has some tips:

  • Encourage your teenager to block or unfollow anyone that partakes in bullying and body-shaming. Tell them not to tolerate it if this is what they're experiencing.
  • Make them aware of the fact that social media can often be unrealistic and that many influencers make use of filters and enhancers to produce an image that can sell a product or be visually enticing. Tell your teenager that they shouldn't compare themselves to "perfect" Instagram images.
  • Enable mindful, balanced eating at home. Make eating about fuelling your body and enjoyment. Don't ever use food to punish or reward. Encourage them to eat enough nutritious fruit and vegetables, but allow them to incorporate their own dietary choices.
  • Encourage them to limit their screen-time and engage in other activities.
  • Encourage the following of body-positive accounts they can relate to.
  • Don’t ignore warning signs that may signal an eating disorder, whether it’s limiting food or eating too much (binge eating).
  • Be available to listen to your teenager if they complain about their body while being supportive and uplifting.

*Disclaimer. The purpose of this article is not to bash a vegan diet, an organic lifestyle, or any wellness products, but to point out how social media can warp our understanding of what is truly healthy. Each individual has their own approach to what constitutes a balanced lifestyle.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, don't hesitate to seek help. Visit Eating Disorders South Africa (EDSA) for information about treatment facilities, information and support groups. 

Image credit: iStock