- 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.
With an estimated 3.6 billion users worldwide, social media is a large part of today’s culture. But consistently scrolling through posts — particularly images that evoke negative feelings or elevate a certain body type — can impact how you see yourself.
Because social media is filled with people presenting themselves in their best light, it can be difficult to avoid images and messages that might make you feel negatively about your body. But there are ways you can curate your feed to make it a healthier space for you.
Here’s how social media can affect body image and tips for using it in a more positive way.
How social media can negatively affect body image
Body image refers to your perspective of your body’s appearance and how it compares to societal standards. A negative body image can cause unrealistic expectations of how your body should look and could lead to unhealthy behaviors, like disordered eating.
A small 2018 study found a correlation between time spent on social media, negative body image, and disordered eating. This was especially true if participants were scrolling through appearance-related content, like the account of a fitness instructor or model on Instagram.
Here are some of the sneaky ways that social media can distort how you perceive your body:
One of the ways social media can hurt your body image is by exposing you to images of “idealized” body types, causing you to compare yourself to them.
“People end up creating unrealistic ideals for themselves based on what they see and feel distressed when they aren’t able to meet those ideas or self-expectations,” says Neha Chaudhary, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
A 2015 study found that female-identifying college students who spent more time on Facebook had poorer body image. The researchers concluded that “young women who spend more time on Facebook may feel more concerned about their body because they compare their appearance to others (especially to peers).”
These comparisons can be part of a vicious cycle.
In a 2021 study of 15 to 35-year-olds, the more they compared themselves to people they followed on social media, the more dissatisfied they became with their bodies. The researchers also pointed out that, if the subjects were already dissatisfied with their bodies, it could increase the drive to compare themselves to others on social media.
This behavior could lead to disordered eating or other unhealthy habits. Each type of eating disorder has different symptoms, but some signs of an eating disorder can include:
- Low body weight
- Frequent weight fluctuations
- Hiding food or eating alone
- Preoccupation with body weight or appearance
- Binging and purging
Photoshop and filters
Of all the photos you see on your social media feeds, there’s a good chance most of them have been edited. According to a 2017 Harris Poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans edit their photos before posting.
Photoshop and filters that alter or edit images can also contribute to negative body image, says Jill M. Emanuele, PhD, the senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, a national nonprofit that supports families with mental health and learning disorders.
“Photoshop and filters present people and things in their best light,” Emanuele says. “It creates a distorted fantasy world and raises the bar on what people perceive is ‘the best’ way to be.”
Even the process of editing your own images can play a role in how you perceive your body. According to a 2022 review, research found that taking and editing selfies was more harmful than posting them, perhaps because it allows you to focus on — and try to fix — your flaws.
Interestingly, posting images doesn’t seem to have the same effect. A 2016 study showed that posting more selfies on instagram was associated with a higher degree of body image satisfaction. Another 2020 study of women found that posting selfies was associated with an increase in self-esteem.
Fitspo and thinspo
Fitspiration and thinspiration — otherwise known as “fitspo” and “thinspo” — are terms that describe social media accounts and images that encourage users to be fit and thin.
A large 2017 study surveyed US college women and found about 10% had created social media posts about weight, body image, exercise, or dieting over a one-month period. Meanwhile, 27.4% commented on friends’ posts about these topics.
Researchers concluded that more time spent on Facebook leads to more frequent body and weight comparisons and more negative feelings about one’s body. It also found that for women who wanted to
, more time on Facebook resulted in more disordered eating symptoms.
Negative effects for men
While most studies on social media and body image focus on women, a 2020 study found similar effects in men.
The study analyzed 1,000 Instagram posts uploaded by male-identifying persons and evaluated responses — in the form of likes and comments. Most of the posts depicted muscularity and leanness, and the posts displaying this body type received the highest number of likes and comments. The researchers concluded that these findings are “potentially harmful to men’s body image.”
For men, the proliferation of a lean, muscle-laden body type on social media could lead to body dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia. Muscle dysmorphia — a type of body dysmorphia — is when one perceives that their body is not muscular or lean enough. It can cause people to engage in unhealthy amounts of exercise and may lead to disordered eating.
According to a 2015 report, stigmas around seeking help for mental illness and eating disorders could discourage some men from getting a diagnosis and treatment. Plus, the assumption that women are most affected by eating disorders could cause more men to go undiagnosed and less likely to receive treatment early on, when it would be most effective.
How social media can promote body positivity
Negative impacts of social media on body image are well documented, but social media can also have a positive effect on your body image, Chaudhary says.
Body positive content and communities
A 2019 Australian study surveyed women between 18 and 30 after viewing body positive content on Instagram. Body positive content seeks to show appreciation and acceptance for all types of bodies. Researchers concluded that after viewing positive content, the women not only felt better about their bodies, but they were also in better moods.
“People tend to emulate what they see or adjust their expectations of themselves based on what others are doing or how they look,” Chaudhary says. “Advocates of body positivity and influential figures definitely have a unique ability to make a positive impact on how people view themselves and their bodies, especially when it comes to young people.”
Social media can also positively impact body image by connecting you with others that help build a body-accepting community, Emanuele says.
Instagram vs. reality
One trend that aims to expose social media’s ultra-curated, performative standards are “Instagram versus reality” images. These images often show an edited photo of someone at their best angle alongside a more “real” photo that shows their imperfections.
In a 2019 study, women were shown these types of posts, either in their original form or just the “reality” or “instagram” images separately. Researchers found that women felt less dissatisfaction with their bodies after seeing either the “reality” images or the “instagram versus reality” images side by side.
Tips to foster a healthy relationship with social media
Social media can negatively affect your body image, mood, and overall mental health, but there are ways to counteract this. Here are three suggestions for curating a more positive feed:
1. Take a break. If you find you feel worse after scrolling, take a step back and see how you feel after disengaging. If you feel better, there’s no shame in putting your phone down for a while, whether that be a few hours, days, or weeks. Even a weeklong break can be enough to boost your mood, a 2022 study found.
2. Unfollow accounts that don’t make you feel good. Pay attention to which accounts, people, and images lift you up. “I tell my patients that one of the biggest shifts they can make is to start to replace content that leaves them feeling worse with content that makes them feel better when they consume it,” Chaudhary says.
3. Find a community. Follow body positive accounts and join supportive groups that can help shift your mindset about “ideal” body types.
You may think you are simply scrolling through social media to unwind, but research has found the images you see and the people you interact with can have an impact on your self-perception.
But, that doesn’t mean all social media use is bad. It just means you may need to re-evaluate how you use social media.
You can make social media a healthier environment for you, whether that means unfollowing certain accounts, finding a healthy community, or taking breaks from the daily scroll.