Social Media and Body Image - Part 1
We often talk about how society and mass media distort the image of health and give us false information in order to fill their pockets with our money. We are also told that we need to look a certain way, wear a specific size of jeans, and use all kinds of luxury products to feel better, happier, and more fulfilled. At the same time we are flooded with images of unrealistically perfect looking, artificially happy people that we compare ourselves with, labeled as inspirational photos, while all they do is make us feel not good enough for today’s beauty standards. We are pressured to try our best to meet the expectations of other people, and in the process of reaching this impossible goal, we damage our health for the sake of a lower number on the scale.
Pictures of super skinny models, hashtags like #thighgap and #bikinibridge, quotes that promote calorie restriction and chronic over exercising - all these things are like a weapon of mass destruction aimed by advertisers, and by our liking, sharing, and reposting these images we are the ones unintentionally pulling the trigger. One innocent click on the like button can have a huge impact, one negative comment can ruin your whole day, one second of comparing yourself to that photoshopped body in the magazine can completely turn you against your own body and mind, and the impact can be drastic. Let’s talk about social media and the impact it can have on our thinking, behavior, daily actions, and mental health.
This post is not meant to bash social media in general. We use social networks to our advantage to reach as many people as possible with our message ourselves, and as an individual, I very much appreciate the option to contact my family and friends that live a few hours (or even a few countries) away from me with just one click. But there are some aspects of social media consumption that can have a devastating effect on our lives. There is a reason for the age restriction on social networks like Facebook or Youtube (13 years with both these services, not that anyone really follows these rules), because of how dangerous navigating an online reality can be for children, and I am not talking about child pornography here. We as adults are exposed to so much shady content on the internet, just like kids are, but we often don’t realize the impact these things have on us because we are grown ups, able to make rational decisions (but are we really?).
SOCIAL CIRCLE, VIRTUALIZED
Humans are social creatures, no doubt about it. We thrive in the company of others, we like to surround ourselves with people we get along with, we value friendships and romantic relationships, we don’t like feeling lonely or rejected, we like to engage with group activities, from board games, to dance clubs and parties, to sports events in crowded stadiums. The energy of the crowd is overwhelming. If you have ever watched a group of football or hockey fans, you might notice the almost contagious vibe (in both good and bad ways), these people, gathered together over their common interest, forget all their past arguments and possible differences, and for the duration of the match, they act like a horde, almost like a family. Unfortunately things can get ugly sometimes when groups of fans of different teams clash and we suddenly see the darker side of contagious group behavior.
A very long time ago, when people still lived in small tribes, spending their evenings sitting around the fire, engaging in conversations, these social groups were much smaller, often not larger than 10 to 15 people. As people started building villages and later small towns, these social groups got bigger and bigger. Before social media came into the game, our social circles were not as big as they are today. Our closest people included our spouses, children, family members, a few good friends, and maybe even a co-worker we spend all day with in the office. When we talked about a friend, it was most likely someone we knew well for a long time, whom we trusted and had a lot in common with. I like to say that to me, a friend is someone who I would be willing to help if he or she called me in the middle of the night and needed to talk/borrow money/take them to the doctor/cry their heart out, and who I know would be willing to do the same for me. In my personal life, I can count these people on one hand and I still have fingers left. This might sound sad, but I always preferred quality over quantity in life, friendships included. To realize how quickly things changed with the arrival of social networking, go to your Facebook profile and notice how many people you have in your friends list. Now ask yourself, how many of these people you know in real life, met at least once, have had a meaningful conversation with, and know something more about them than their name (or the things posted on their wall). How many birth dates are you able to assign to those names? What kind of memories are connected to them? Do these virtual friendships have any value in your real life?
I go through my friends list several times a year and ask myself these questions. In the past, I was okay with adding people just because they sent me a request and their name sounded familiar to me (usually it was someone I used to go to school with twenty years ago, but hadn’t seen since then, not to mention that they never even messaged me or called me after I accepted their virtual friend request). At one point I had over 200 people in my friends list, but nobody to call when I was feeling lonely and wanted to hang out, chat over a cup of coffee, or to prevent me from going to a farmers market alone again. When I was 12, I got a pen pal from Lithuania and we exchanged handwritten letters for almost ten years, we were even planning on meeting each other. When we both got our Facebook profiles and connected online, we stopped sending letters and in less than six months, our communication completely perished. In my old job, a guy who worked in the same building added me to his friends list and the next day when we met in the hallway, he didn’t even say hi.
That day, I came home, opened my Facebook profile and simply deleted around 80% of my so-called friends. Some of them were on my friends list for years and had never messaged me, but the day after I deleted them, I got some private messages like “why did you delete me? I did nothing wrong!” or “we are not friends anymore?” No! I wanted to shout back, we never even were friends! This really made me re-evaluate the importance of social connections in our lives and the way we have approached this social media boom that has been unfolding over recent years with the emergence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, and other online services for connecting people. We have so many virtual friends, but for some reason a lot of us become more and more lonely and isolated instead of more connected.
When we were little and wanted to play outside with our friend, we had to actually go to their house, ring the doorbell and ask Mrs. Norman if Sally can come out to play. Today, all we need to do is check social media to see if Sally is online and available to talk. And why leave the house anyway! Why not stay home and just chat online?! It seems like a luxury, an advantage, a convenience. We can watch a YouTube video on the left side of the screen and still chat with Sally in the right corner and still stay in our PJs. What a life! We exchanged all the benefits of real life human interactions, face time with real people, for a more comfortable option: turning on our electronic devices. It doesn’t have to be a computer or a laptop, our phones also have an app for that. Many of us have a cellphone in our hand the second our alarm clock goes off, and it is very often the last thing we have our eyes on before we go to sleep (read here why this is not a good idea, no matter what you use that phone for).
“LIKE” HUNTING SOCIETY
Long before social media appeared, people used online blogs to share their thoughts, stories, and ideas. These online journals began to be slowly outshadowed by social networks. Facebook allows you to instantly share a photo of your vacation, Twitter enables you to express your impulsive idea in 140 characters or less, and the newest Instagram feature lets you snap a 10 second video that is immediately live (who knows why they think we need another social media app). Silly Snapchat filters that add animal ears to your face are a wonderful example of people wasting time, energy, and technology. We say that we don’t share every minute of our lives for other people, but we do. We do it for popularity and as many click on the like button from “friends” and complete strangers as possible. Likes are almost like a new currency in the online world. Likes make us feel good about ourselves. If somebody adds a heart to our Instagram selfie, it works as a little confidence boost for our mind. If you think that is absurd, think about this: do more likes on your picture make you feel better, or worse? We started as hunter-gatherers and turned into like-hunters. We used to hunt to survive, why do we hunt today?
We put stuff online only to get feedback from other people, most of the time people that have no impact on our personal life. Why do we seek approval from complete strangers? Why is it so important to us that everyone compliments us on our new haircut, outfit of the day, or snap of our lunch? Because we are driven by an external motivation and seeking instant gratification from our actions. I used to post a picture of every meal I cooked and carefully arranged on the plate. I had to take a picture and put it online before I was able to grab a fork and eat it (very often the meal was already getting cold and my boyfriend always patiently waited for me to upload the image online, poor hungry guy). I don’t run a food blog, I don’t do food styling, and I don’t make money by taking pictures of food, all I wanted was likes, hearts, and thumbs ups. I was disappointed when I only received three or four notifications, and I was thinking “what am I doing wrong? Bad lightning? Too many hashtags? Wrong timing?” I am in a different timezone than most people I am connected with on Instagram, so I suspected they were all still asleep, and once they were awake and online, my pictures would already be buried somewhere way down their timeline. But that was not my problem. My problem was that whole behavior.
I thought I needed to share selfies of me and my boyfriend, so people would see how happy and in love we are. I believed that posting snaps of my meals would make people think I am responsible and disciplined with my diet (and they will admire that). I secretly hoped people would notice me, like my photos, share my thoughts, and I would become social media famous, so I would be like one of the people I admired online (food bloggers, authors, health and wellness influencers, etc). Every time I took a picture of the book I was currently reading, I always mentioned the author and their social media profile and I would hope they would get a notification, notice me, and like my photo. It happened many times and it always made me so happy, for a moment. This presumed happiness never lasted. It was an instant of gratification achieved through my superficial external motivation. If you read our post on Challenges, goals and happiness, you know that seeking instant gratification can get pretty messy and turn into something we call the Hedonic Adaptation, a mental process that makes any positive (or negative) feelings fade with time, making us hungry for more and more quick fixes. If your think buying something nice will make you happier, you are most likely to fall into this hedonic trap.
Very often we turn to social media for inspiration and motivation. This is perfectly okay, many of us need some kind of boost from the outside world in order to stay motivated, feel credible, or get inspired. Problems start to seep in when the only thing that is driving us forward is what we called extrinsic motivation, meaning we only seek motivation and inspiration in other people; we tend to compare ourselves with others, oftentimes forgetting about our own goals, challenges and limitations. This might actually be damaging, to not just our self-esteem, but to both mental and physical health. How can we avoid the damage and at the same time find our motivation in the right place? We are about to find out, so stay tuned for the next article!