Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.

By Patti Richards

The World of Psychology describes body image as the way a person perceives herself when she looks in the mirror. In today’s media culture, there are more types of “mirrors” than ever before.

Young people see thousands of images on a daily basis through social media sites and use them as personal benchmarks. Unable to differentiate between the realities an actual mirror shows and the perceived reality of celebrities and sports stars, those with a negative body image look for ways to feel accepted and in control. Eating disorders are born from this intense desire to achieve an impossible standard.1 Consider Kira O.’s story that she shared on the Heroes in Recovery website:

“I experienced a lot of illness as a child, resulting in dietary changes that impacted my view of food and my body. I attended a rigorous high school and excelled in athletics, including soccer and cross country, adding to pressure and body awareness. I remember a guy telling me, ‘If you keep eating this much, you will get fat!,’ while my soccer coach told me that I needed to gain more muscle.  At a nutrition class in school, the teacher taught us how to eat healthier and count calories, which is where my awareness of portions and calories began. I also started comparing with peers, attempting to fit in, and struggling with identity. My self-esteem plummeted. In ninth grade, my problems manifested internally and externally through anorexia… becoming someone even I didn’t recognize”2

Like most people who struggle with an eating disorder, Kira’s problems started at a young age. Early and consistent exposure to social media sites can do more damage than ever thought possible during these formative years and beyond. Wanting to look thinner, more muscular or more developed is no longer reserved for a few minutes in the locker room or at the swimming pool. Social media is causing body image distortions that are so deep, the result can be a lifelong struggle with an eating disorder.

Social Media Statistics

In early 2016, scientists reported evidence linking the use of social media with body image issues in young people. This included dieting, body surveillance, a strong desire for thinness and self-objectification. Although social media sites are not the cause of eating disorders, they are a factor in the development of body image issues. One reason is the amount of time teens spend on social media sites.3 In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported the following:

  • According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted during 2014 and 2015, 94 percent of teens who go online using a mobile device do so daily.
  • Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular, and 71 percent of teens say they use more than one social media site.
  • Boys report going on Facebook most often, while girls are more likely than boys to use visually-oriented platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram.4

Social Media and Body Image

Sites like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram offer adolescents a continual stream of pictures and video that depict the people in them at their best, living the perfect life that teenagers desire. Without the ability to consistently make good choices or have appropriate judgment- from the part of the teenage brain that is not fully developed until age 25- young people perceive what they see as reality. They are unable to tell the difference between everyday life, a moment in time or an image that has been altered. Teens look to social media sites to find approval for their appearance, choice of clothing and even their significant others. “Likes” drive the desire for acceptance, and young people, especially young women, openly compare themselves to pictures of celebrities, reality stars or “wellness” enthusiasts.

According to the Child Mind Institute, these unrealistic expectations reach dangerous levels in college, when the standards for achievement become even higher and many young people seek acceptance wherever they can find it.5

To help address unhealthy body images in the media, the BBC reports countries like France have set standards for a healthy body weight for all models in the fashion industry. A long-time barometer of what is considered the acceptable woman’s body, France is taking the lead by requiring a doctor’s certificate attesting to the overall health of the model based on her body mass index(BMI ). The doctor’s certification will take into account the model’s age, body type and weight. The law also requires that all digitally-altered photographs be labeled.

In a recent statement, Marisol Touraine, France’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health said, “Exposing young people to normative and unrealistic images of bodies leads to a sense of self-depreciation and poor self-esteem that can impact health-related behavior.”

Israel, Italy and Spain have similar laws banning underweight models.6

Help for Eating Disorders

Extreme portion control, over exercising, skipping meals, weighing daily, binging and purging are all symptoms of eating disorders. Eating disorders affect both men and women, but women are 2½ times more likely to struggle with a disorder. There is no definitive cause of eating disorders, but researchers have found genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological and social factors all play a role in the development of the disease.7

If you or a loved one struggle with an eating disorder, Center for Change is here for you. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options at 888-224-8250

1 Polk, Whitney. “How the Media Affects Body Image.” World of Psychology. N.p., 09 June 2016. Web. 28 July 2017.

2 O., Kira. “Moment by Moment – Heroes in Recovery – Celebrating Recovery and the Heroic Journey.” Heroes in Recovery. N.p., 4 Mar. 2017. Web. 28 July 2017.

3 Simmons, Rachel. “How Social Media Is a Toxic Mirror.” Time. 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 28 July 2017.

4 Health, Office Of Adolescent. “February 2016: Teens’ Social Media Use.” US Department of Health and Human Services, 13 May 2016. Web. 28 July 2017.

5 Rae Jacobson. “Social Media and Self-Esteem | Impact of Social Media on Youth.” Child Mind Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2017.

6France bans extremely thin models.” BBC News. BBC, 06 May 2017. Web. 28 July 2017.

7Eating Disorders .” National Institute of Mental Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2016. Web. 28 July 2017.