With social media use at an all-time high, apps like Instagram and Facetune are creating unrealistic realities that users are seeking to attain. Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and orthorexia are on the rise in our media-driven society.
A study conducted by the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology found that the pressure to look perfect has pushed people to extreme lengths and has created a rise in people struggling with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Many people who deal with this disorder seek out cosmetic and surgical procedures to fix their perceived flaws by getting Botox, filler and plastic surgery.
Popular social media accounts of influencers and celebrities can also have a major impact on susceptible teens and young adults, who may feel like they need to look like them and seek out these surgeries to attain self-worth.
Kennedy Greening, a 25-year-old new mom, knows all too well the struggle with maintaining a healthy body image while using social media. She says apps like Instagram put unspoken pressure on people to attain perfection.
“I think in high school it was probably the hardest. Just because everyone was on Instagram in Grade 11,” says Greening. “I found that everybody was posting so many pictures and you just have more access to seeing pictures of people constantly.”
Greening says the pressure to become thin was exacerbated by seeing tiny women on social media daily.
“Seeing people on social media was like, ‘that person is so skinny, like that person is so skinny and I’m not skinny,’” says Greening. “There’s so much pressure to be thin.”
Findings from a study called Effects of social media use on desire for cosmetic surgery among young women have shown, high usage of social media sites, especially picture-based ones, can be harmful to individuals’ body image and mental health.
Teens are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of social media and are more likely to suffer from insecurity and confidence issues. While a systematic review by JMIR Mental Health found that online scrolling can lower self-esteem and increase the risk of depression and anxiety.
Published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, a study showed girls in grade seven who regularly shared self‐images on social media compared to those who did not report significantly higher body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint and internalization of the thin ideal.
The research also found when girls in the study manipulated their photos with editing apps or added filters, the more they struggled with body related eating concerns.
Greening says unspoken pressure to post perfect photos is something that she still struggles with today.
“I feel like every time I go to post a photo, I either have to post it in like three seconds or I’m not going to post it because I just over analyze the photo so much,” says Greening. “I feel like there’s so much pressure to make sure it’s perfect, nothing’s wrong with [my] body – [my] face looks good.”
A study by the International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation found most people who struggle with BDD don’t seek psychiatric or psychological care, but instead seek out surgical, cosmetic and dental treatments to fix flaws they perceive to have.
Additionally, in 2017, CNN Health found 55 per cent of facial plastic surgeons reported seeing patients who wanted to improve how they looked in selfies, a 13 per cent increase from 2016. And according to a report by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there was a 16 per cent spike in filler injections in 2016 from the previous year. Some plastic surgeons are seeing an increase in requests from patients who want to look like their filtered selfie images.
“Patients have been coming in with Snapchat-filtered selfies to show what they want done to their body,” says Matthew Schulman, a plastic surgeon in New York.
A study conducted in Saudi Arabia found 48.5 per cent of participants said social media has influenced them to get cosmetic procedures. It also found that viewing cosmetic surgery material on social media, spending longer hours on social media platforms and having negative self-views when viewing social media are associated with an increased likelihood of undergoing cosmetic procedures in the future.
Alyce Adkins, a reporter for The Lexington Line, found that because we’re exposed to a highly-curated selection of images and videos daily, it can alter our perception of reality and in-turn how we view our appearance. Social media platforms have become a way for people to seek approval from others and meet societal standards of what they think they should look like.
Kristin von Ranson, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in eating disorders, says there can be many factors that influence and cause eating disorders.
She says although there can be other reasons why someone may struggle with an eating disorder like genetics, she agrees the pressures of society and the media can play a huge role in how someone views themselves and their body.
“There’s sort of this sensitivity to physical appearance and how important that is in a person’s life and in terms of how they think of themselves, or how other people think of them,” von Ranson says.
von Ranson also highlights the dangers of thin and fitspiration accounts on social media, which are supposed to inspire people to become thinner or fitter by looking at pictures on these accounts.
“It’s been much more popular in the last while. Some people use it for inspiration for weight loss or just because they want to exercise more,” says von Ranson. “But there are people who use it from an eating disorder direction of using exercise to maintain a weight that’s unhealthily low.”
Alina Petre for Healthline explains that orthorexia, a relatively new term, is an eating disorder which involves an obsession with healthy eating. Risk factors for the disorder include tendencies toward perfectionism, high anxiety or a need for control.
Petre also explains that people who have a career that focuses on health like bodybuilders, athletes, fashion and fitness models also have a higher risk of developing orthorexia. Many of these people rely on social media accounts such as Instagram to gain followers and promote their individual brand. They have to consistently post content to retain their followers and there’s a higher pressure on these individuals to constantly look perfect, as their income relies on it.
Expertise in the field of eating disorders and body dysmorphia are limited, which is concerning – as over 350,000 Canadians are estimated to suffer from BDD, and about 1 million Canadians meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.
The Eating Disorder Network of Alberta says that only 12 psychiatrists of the 4,100 who are registered in Canada specialize in eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
The Eating Disorder Hope organization says that treatment for body dysmorphia and eating disorders can include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). Both of these have been proven effective in the treatment of these disorders.
Greening says what helped her combat her eating disorder and body dysmorphia was to unfollow social media accounts that trigger her. She now only follows accounts that make her feel good about herself.
“I really wanted to get my lips done just because I was so insecure. I just had to stop following people who had big lips, like surgically big lips,” says Greening. “I had to unfollow them because just looking at their lips, I was like, ‘oh, my gosh, I want that so bad.’”
von Ranson says if you’re struggling with an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, it’s important to reach out to others and to not struggle alone, as there are many resources and treatments to help.
“I think what’s most important is that people struggling with eating disorders reach out to get support and treatment,” says von Ranson.