Facebook May Hurt a Woman's Body Image

It’s been pretty well established that media images of thin models and toned celebrities can cause a woman’s body image to take a hit. Now comes evidence to suggest that realistic social-media images — on Facebook, specifically — can add to that suffering, too. The latest study on the topic, due to be presented in May at the annual International Communication Association conference in Seattle, found that young women who spend a lot of time on Facebook tend to feel more negatively about their bodies than other young women.

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“The attention college women pay to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on Facebook than through traditional media because the impact is stronger when it’s people that they know, as opposed to celebrities,” researcher Yusuf Kalyango, an associate professor of journalism at Ohio University, tells Yahoo Shine. And the takeaway, he notes, is that “online objectification and social comparison could trigger the development of body shame.”

The study is due to be published in a public health journal in July, and organizers of the ICA conference announced just Thursday that it would be on the lineup in May.

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Kalyango and other researchers — including those at the University of Iowa and at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland — surveyed 881 female college students in the Midwest about their Facebook use, body image, and exercise and eating habits. And, according to the findings, the more time women spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to be overly concerned with their physical appearance and feel badly about themselves after seeing another woman’s photos. Those already prone to low self-image were particularly affected.

“For women who wanted to lose weight, time on Facebook predicted paying more attention to physical appearance and more negative feelings,” the study notes.

Other recent studies have made connections between eating disorders and Facebook, including one, published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking in 2013, that surveyed 103 college girls. It, too, found that “girls who allocated the most time to photo-related activities were more likely to internalize a thin ideal, succumb to self-objectification, be dissatisfied with their weight, or report having a drive to become thin,” reported Time. More recently, researchers at Florida State University published two studies in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that had similar findings.

Kyle De Young, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Dakota and a research scientist specializing in eating disorders, tells Yahoo Shine that social media simply expands the opportunities for appearance-conscious women to obsess over images and feel inadequate. “It doesn’t take as much work to see these images now,” he says. But De Young believes the best way to counteract the bombardment of images now is through educational interventions, such as teaching young women what sort of body sizes are realistically attainable. “I don’t think blaming social media is a worthwhile enterprise,” he says.

Claire Mysko, a body-image expert who oversees the Proud2Bme program with the National Eating Disorders Association, tends to agree. In a CNN essay about the recent Florida State University research, she wrote, “A simplistic blame game would be seriously misguided. We need more research to better understand this connection and, perhaps more important, how social media can be used as a positive tool for outreach, early intervention and recovery.”

In her piece, Mysko mentions how young people she’s worked with have said that looking at other people’s images on social media does make them feel bad — just how Mysko herself felt inadequate during the throes of her own eating disorder, years ago, while comparing herself to magazine photos of models. “The point is that the obsessions, compulsions and comparisons that drive eating disorders are nothing new,” she writes. “Social media have just amplified them. But it also has the potential to amplify solutions.” Start petitions, share your encouraging stories, take part in events such as the recent Eating Disorder Awareness Week and unplug when the pressure becomes too great, she suggests.

“Social media can stoke body dissatisfaction and reinforce disordered eating,” Mysko notes. “It can also empower individuals to use their voices and resist mainstream media messages about beauty and thinness.”

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