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Media Influence on Body Image

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Media Influence on Body Image essay
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Media Influence on Body Image and Disordered Eating Pathology in College-aged Females Jaime Bradner Hawai’i Pacific University

Introduction and Literature Review

From an early age, little girls are taught, “beauty is pain.” To be beautiful, you must endure the pain that is rendered when altering your appearance. From plucking to waxing to soaking chemicals in your hair for hours at a time, women allow their bodies to become canvases of change—a masterpiece representing whatever ideal beauty form is being propagated at the time. In a society where the average social media site “serves 655 million users daily (Mabe, A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K., 2014)” and allows a person to spend hours a day documenting each facet of their life, post, view and send pictures at the click of a button, connect to peers, it is necessary to examine the influence of these social media outlets. This study attempts to analyze the correlation between social media usage and body image, especially in relation to college aged females and disordered eating pathology.

Learning more about the relationship between social media and body image and how it relates to college-aged females and disordered eating will aid in the understanding, recognition, treatment and prevention of disordered eating, as well as provide additional information of social media influences and their implications. For example, if the test results show a positive correlation between social media usage and disordered eating, mental health professionals may use this information to formulate and adapt treatment plans, potentially increasing the success rate of recovery for their patients. This literature review will explore four major aspects that display the negative influence of social media on body image—Key features of Social Media, examination of the thin ideal, social comparison theory, and personality and psychosocial predictors.Key Features of Social Media There are many different, attractive attributes of social media sites that justify the amount of time spent using them. For one, they are accessible. Social media sites can be accessed on an array of different devices, such as computers, laptops, tablets, mp3 players, and cellphones.

At any point in time, a person has the ability to pull out their preferred device and connect to a social media site. This accessibility means that information provided on the site—whether positive or negative is viewable at any moment. Social media sites “allow for the rapid creation and sharing of user-generated messages, as well as instantaneous communication with other users” (Perloff, R. M. , 2014). Another important feature of social media is its interactivity. Users from all over the world are able to connect to one another—sharing pictures, messages and other types of information. LinkedIn, a popular career-networking site, allows the user to post their resume and job skills in a website like template, giving employers the opportunity to contact the user. Social media sites group together like-minded individuals, allowing them to share personal aspects of their own lives. And by doing so, foster a sense of community and trust amongst users. Sites become “interpersonal communities, picture sharing, blogs, commenting and forums where users engage in full on conversation” (Perloff, R. M., 2014). Users have the ability to control and customize their own online interpersonal interactions, which enriches the overall experience of the user, while promoting a sense of individuality, all the time never having to leave the comfort of their living room.

One last key feature of social media is that it is personal and customizable. Most social media sites come with customizable options giving users the ability to display different pictures, backgrounds, colors, to add music, videos or more to create a personal viewing experience. They can also change the look and feel of their site depending on how they intend to use it. A personal social media site may include pictures of family, friends, children, or pets, while a professional site may include examples of a user’s work. This is especially important for users in the creative arts fields. Social media sites allow users to showcase talents and abilities while networking for employment. While social media sites are personal and customizable they also offer an illusion of fantasy, users generally post pictures of them looking their most attractive, and also have the ability to alter pictures prior to posting them. Since the popularity of social media has increased, celebrity profiles have also increased and are readily available to users, giving them the opportunity to experience and view these celebrity’s’ profiles as if they know them personally. Users are also able to hide behind these customized profiles, which gives them a sense of anonymity and security. It is important to understand and be aware of these key features of social media so that we may determine the overall effects of social media on today’s youth. These features could be used to explain why social media is such a prominent fixture in our culture and why the average college student spends 100 minutes a day (A. Mabe, et al, 2014) on social media sites, such as Facebook. The Thin Ideal

Look in any magazine, watch any commercial; movie or TV show and a woman, with an ultra slender body will be shown. From models, actresses, musicians to athletes, the media is saturated with depictions of thin body types. The thin ideal is the “media’s portrayal of the ultra slender body as the ideal body image.” (Krones, P.G., Stice, E., Batres, C., & Orjada, K., 2005). Exposure to the thin ideal creates body dissatisfaction among young women because it pits women against other women. Young girls see that their bodies do not represent what is depicted as “ideal” in the media, and they become dissatisfied with their appearance. Even media outlets meant to promote a healthy lifestyle are overrun with misinformation and unrealistic body image expectations. Health and Fitness magazines “market the portrayal of the ‘ultra-athletic’ physique” (Schreiber, K. (2015), and studies have found that “women exposed to magazine pictures of ultrathin models experience a host of negative emotions including depression, stress, guilt, shame, insecurity, and body dissatisfaction.” (Krones, P.G et als, 2005).

In terms of social media, the thin ideal is promoted, not only through pictures of celebrities and models, but also through constant viewing of pictures of their peers, pictures that are not necessarily accurate depictions of their lives or bodies. Social Comparison According to evolutionary theory, social comparison is a natural aspect of the human condition. Social comparison “related to how attractive an individual is to the opposite sex occurs routinely within the human species.” (Krones, P.G. et al, 2005). This means that we are constantly comparing ourselves to others to determine our place in society. For survival purposes, it is necessary to know how to attract the opposite sex and how we are able to adapt ourselves to those specific qualifications. Social media allows for easy social comparison due to the constant influx of images, status updates, and propaganda displaying a lifestyle that the user controls and edits. As previously mentioned, much of what the media depicts are unrealistic images promoting the thin ideal.

Social media users will see these images and naturally compare themselves to the men and women in the media. This allows users to “compare themselves with idealized images and subsequently believe they fall short of these social and cultural standards” (Krones, P.G, et al, 2005). Pressure to fit a certain body type has the potential to lead young women to take drastic measures to change their appearance and ensure that it is more reflective of the body ideal displayed in the pictures and videos they watch. The structure of social media also allows for a large quantity of pictures and videos to be viewed at once—either pictures of celebrities, or pictures of friends and family members. A user can flip through many pictures at one time, and studies have found an association with time spent on Facebook and “how often women compared their bodies or weights to those of their friends, as well as how negatively women felt about their bodies after looking at someone else’s posts or photos” (Hummel, A. C., & Smith, A. R. 2015).

Social media also allows users to hide behind carefully constructed profiles, giving a sense of anonymity to the user. This anonymity, at times, has resulted in negative social interactions amongst users. Because users do not have to attach their name or face to a comment or post, users relinquish the responsibility of their actions or words and have been known to engage in cyber-bullying. In a recent study conducted by (Mabe, A.G et al, 2014) teasing, negative peer to peer interactions and peer pressure are some of the “catalysts that [reinforce] the thin-ideal image and subsequently produce body dissatisfaction.” In addition to this, sociocultural pressure is noted as a reason for body dissatisfaction. Personality and Psychosocial Predictors While social media is an outlet utilized by users of all ages, from every part of the world, there are specific features of social media that engage certain personality types. Similar to how alcoholism has personality and psychosocial predictors, overuse of social media has predictors as well. The personality and psychosocial predictors of overuse of social media that are discussed in this literature review are also in reference to disordered eating pathology.

It is not known at this time whether disordered eating pathology impacts overuse of social media or if overuse of social media impacts disordered eating pathology—but studies indicate that individuals with certain personality attributes have a tendency towards overuse of social media, as well as disordered eating pathology. When diagnosing patients with eating disorders, there are three clusters of personality types that doctors have identified—“Impulsive/emotionally dysregulated; Anxious/compulsive, and Relatively high functioning/perfectionistic” (Karatzias, T., Chouliara, Z., Power, K., Collin, P., Yellowlees, A., & Grierson, D., 2010). An impulsive/emotionally dysregulated personality type may be drawn to the fast-paced ever-changing culture of social media. The accessibility of social media allows for instant gratification when sending or receiving comments.

Engaging with peers would also be something that an individual with this personality would be drawn to, having the ability to connect to strangers in an extremely personal way. An anxious/compulsive personality type would enjoy the anonymity that social media offers. The fact that entire social interactions can be shared without having to engage in face-to-face conversation, and that self-disclosure can be carefully controlled and manipulated provides a sense of security and comfort for the anxious/compulsive personality type. Social media is perfect for the relatively high functioning/perfectionistic personality type because the environment is carefully controlled. Users only submit exactly what they want to submit, offering users to create the most flawless collection of pictures, status updates and friend lists imaginable. Social media also offers career-oriented and organizational tools as well, such as career profiles, event planning, and calendar or scheduling features. The high functioning/perfectionistic personality could take advantage of these options. In addition to personality types, there are also psychosocial predictors such as an individual’s social support system, trauma and self-esteem.

Social support is a mitigating factor for disordered eating pathology, and disordered eating pathology is also a factor that potentially negatively impacts the relationship between the patient and their support system, “inter or intrapersonal difficulties or negative affect associated with some comorbid disorders may lead to disordered eating responses.” (Karatzias et al, 2010). Difficulties with an individual’s social support system can lead a person to pursue an active online social life. As previously mentioned, social media offers users complete community like experiences, with peer-to-peer communication. Self-esteem has also been linked to higher levels of psychopathology (Karatzias, T, et al 2010) and individuals with lower self-esteem “tend to feel better when they compare themselves with similar people.” (Brown, J. D., & Bobkowski, P. S. 2011).

Social media offers this to individuals because it groups people together according to likes and dislikes. Users are able to search and view profiles through related word searches. Many social media sites allow users the option to “follow” feeds or boards where the “follower” will be updated when the individual they are following posts new pictures or updates. These four aspects—social media features, examination and promotion of the thin ideal, social comparison theory, and personality and psychosocial predictors display how and why social media has the ability to be such a strong influence, this literature review examines this influence in relation to disordered eating and proposes the research question, ​“Does social media usage have an effect on body image, especially related to college-aged females and disordered eating? ​” ​ In addition to the impact of social media usage on body image, it is important to address barriers to recovery, such as trauma, as well as potential therapeutic tools–such as the notion of body flexibility/body neutrality, as opposed to body positivity.

Multiple studies have been conducted examining the effects of the media in relation to body image. These social media sites, which have become such an integral part of our daily lives must continue to be explored and researched. Social media sites, in and of themselves are structured so that people use them often, they are accessible, they are personal and customizable, and they provide interactive opportunities for interpersonal exchanges. They also promote the unrealistic thin ideal body image, making young women feel dissatisfied with their own bodies, and encourage users to compare themselves to one another through the use of quick picture-sharing and profile scanning. There are also many personality and psychosocial factors that predict whether a person will engage in social media overuse as well as disordered eating. More research needs to be conducted in the area of social media influence, as it affects millions of users all over the world. This research is necessary to effectively examine the standard of living and the psychological wellbeing of young adult women, as well as to address new recovery tools.


  1. Brown, J. D., & Bobkowski, P. S. (2011). Older and Newer Media: Patterns of Use and Effects on Adolescents’ Health and Well-Being. ​Journal Of Research On Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell) ​, ​21 ​(1), 95-113.
  2. Clay, D., Vignoles, V. L., & Dittmar, H. (2005). Body Image and Self-Esteem Among Adolescent Girls: Testing the Influence of Sociocultural Factors. Journal Of Research On Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell) ​, ​15 ​(4), 451-477. Facebook use ‘impoverishes’ wellbeing. (2013). ​
  3. Therapy Today ​, ​24 ​(7), 4. Haferkamp, N., & Krämer, N. C. (2011). Social Comparison 2.0: Examining the Effects of Online Profiles on Social-Networking Sites. ​Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking ​, ​14 ​(5), 309-314. Hummel, A. C., & Smith, A. R. (2015).
  4. Ask and you shall receive: Desire and receipt of feedback via Facebook predicts disordered eating concerns. International Journal Of Eating Disorders ​, ​48 ​(4), 436-442 Karatzias, T., Chouliara, Z., Power, K., Collin, P., Yellowlees, A., & Grierson, D. (2010).
  5. General psychopathology in anorexia nervosa: the role of psychosocial factors. ​Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy ​, ​17 ​(6), 519-527. Krones, P. G., Stice, E., Batres, C., & Orjada, K. (2005).
  6. In vivo social comparison to a thin-ideal peer promotes body dissatisfaction: A randomized experiment. ​International Journal Of Eating Disorders ​, ​38 ​(2), 134-142.MEDIA INFLUENCE ON BODY IMAGE 12 Mabe, A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K. (2014).
  7. Do you ‘like’ my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. ​International Journal Of Eating Disorders ​, ​47 ​(5), 516-523. Perloff, R. M. (2014).
  8. Social media effects on young women’s body image concerns: Theoretical perspectives and an agenda for research. ​ Sex Roles, 71 ​(11-12), 363-377. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-014-0384-6 Schreiber, K. (2015). BODY CONSCIOUS. ​Psychology Today ​, ​48 ​(5), 34-35.

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How does social media influence body image?
Social media can negatively affect body image by over-exposing you to "idealized" body types . While posting selfies may help body image, trying to edit out perceived flaws can be harmful. To reduce harm on social media, unfollow accounts, find a healthy community, and take breaks.
How the media affects self-esteem and body image?
Research clearly shows that media exposure contributes to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating . Social media is unfortunately shaping our concept of beauty. With constant exposure to images posted online, it is evident that there is a link to how individuals compare themselves and perceive their own body.
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