June 27, 2014

The Pros & Cons of Social Media on Eating & Body Image Issues. ~ Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld

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Eight years ago, I started a blog called “Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder?” with the goal of starting a dialogue around women’s struggles with food and weight.

During that time, the blog became the inspiration for writing my book about the toxic culture of disordered eating, exposing the normalization of eating problems and body dissatisfaction.

It was a sounding board and became a popular interactive community of people impacted by self-esteem issues and poor relationships with food and their bodies. Ultimately hundreds of these eating disorder blogs and online support communities flourished.

Clearly, there was a need.

Has anything changed since the blog boom? Not really.

In fact, recent reports have alarmed us to the dangers of social media (including blogging) in promoting eating disorders and a more general disordered mentality. We have learned that exposure to Facebook; certain Twitter hashtags; and images on Pinterest, Instagram, and blogs can trigger symptoms in those who are predisposed.

Terms like “pro-ana,” “thinspo,” “fitspo,” “thigh gap,” and “food porn” have become part of our vernacular.

Social media sites can challenge those with clinical eating disorders due to the sites’ promotion of the thin ideal.

Users are posting only the best, most flattering pictures of themselves, raising the bar for beauty and appearance. Those with eating disorders then compare themselves against others’ best, edited selves – and technology permits a virtually infinite comparison group.

Plus, social media feeds often read like diet directives. Those we connect with online post often on their weight loss victories, their marathon training, the cleanses, diets, and juicing they are trying—all of this can be triggering for those susceptible to disordered eating.

Moreover, many sites run ads promoting the thin ideal, which can further body dissatisfaction. Ads pop up on users’ screens for diet plans, exercise programs, “fitspo” images, all of which can reinforce unhealthy ideas about food and weight.

But social media can also be an incredible ally for recovery, growth, and change. And that is why I blog.

At the International Conference of Eating Disorders in March 2014, Australian health psychologist, Phillipa Diedrichs stated that through our use of social media, “We become the media.” When we speak of all the evils of the media with regard to eating and body image disturbance, we must recognize that there are powerful counter-culture voices in the mix, louder than ever before.

How exactly are we impacting the world around us in a positive way? Here are a few examples:

• When lingerie store La Perla featured a frighteningly thin mannequin in their Manhattan shop, a Twitter firestorm forced the company to take it down.

• Thierry Lasry’s line of “Anorexxxy”sunglasses came under a similar social media attack, despite celebrity endorsements. As a result, the designer changed the name of the glasses to “Axxxexxxy.”

Proud2BMe teen ambassador Benjamin O’Keefe successfully campaigned online to get retailer Abercrombie Fitch to carry plus sizes.

• Two teenagers, Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran, founded Project Heal, to increase eating disorder awareness and offer treatment scholarships.

• When educator/activist Melissa Fabello posted a video on YouTube addressing why she’s a body image activist, she spawned a hash tag that went viral on Twitter and connected tons of body image warriors around a theme.

As a blogger and writer, I love being part of the exchange of information, the connection of like-minded thinkers, and the burgeoning revolution that provides an alternative voice and challenges the thin ideal that has deleterious consequences for some and unfortunate consequences for all.

How can you use social media as friend, rather than foe?

• Recognize if your participation on certain sites is causing you distress and evaluate the pros/cons of continuing to use these sites.

• Create and manage a list of sites, organizations, and people to follow that promote recovery and body positivity. Go to my blog for my recommendations.

• Learn how to remove triggering advertisements from your sites and consider reporting those that promote pathology. • Become an activist yourself—the more vocal you are the better in terms of furthering the movement and bettering your own recovery and relationship with your body.

• If you have children who go online, be sure to monitor them closely and talk to them about how certain websites and images make them feel.

Are we still swimming upstream when it comes to challenging the myriad media influences that negatively impact self-esteem? Probably. But now there is a swelling current that carries us.


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Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Pixoto

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