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September 14, 2023

The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Social Media

The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Social Media

Social media is an inescapable part of our lives. It has an enormous impact on how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Social platforms often shape and mirror trends in music, fitness, fashion, marketing, and more. Unfortunately, some of these trends can contribute to comparison culture, reinforcing unrealistic beauty standards and even encouraging disordered eating.

For individuals already vulnerable to eating disorders, navigating social media can present both risks and benefits.

Comparison Culture In The Social Media Realm

The prevalence of comparison culture is a significant pitfall of social media, where many users follow actors, influencers, and models who conform to traditional beauty standards. It is common to compare yourself, your body, your fitness routine, and more to these figures, forgetting they have resources that are out of reach for most people. Personal trainers and chefs, plastic surgery, and expensive products often contribute to their appearance. 

Social media users (celebrities and non-celebrities alike) also frequently alter their digital appearance with retouching apps. The unfortunate reality of this phenomenon is that social media presents appearance standards that don’t actually exist. While posters may gain some surface-level confidence from posting retouched photos, their underlying dissatisfaction with their appearance may persist or even worsen. Social media also often features only the “highlight reel” of a person’s life, leaving out the realities. 

Comparison can often spark feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Broadly speaking, our culture values thin bodies and thus consistently sends the message that being thin is “good” and being in a larger body is “bad”—even though one body type isn’t ideal or healthy for everyone. The outright idolization of thin bodies in media—and the body comparison it can elicit—can play a contributing role in the development of an eating disorder. 

Eating Disorders and Social Media

The potential risks of social media

Eating disorders are complex psychiatric illnesses that form from a combination of various genetic, biological, and environmental factors. However, social media trends (e.g., “What I Eat in a Day” videos, “Before and After” photos, “Girl Dinner,” etc.), altered photos, and curated feeds can elicit disordered eating behaviors. The nature of social media prompts you to judge yourself against the polished digital lives of others and pressures you to live up to our culture’s rigid standards for an “acceptable” body size and shape.

Various studies have demonstrated the connection between social media and a worsened relationship with food and body:

Those in recovery may also be triggered by content on social media platforms. Posts about weight loss, workout routines, dieting, and any content glorifying thinness and putting down those in larger bodies can potentially trigger eating disorder thoughts and behaviors for someone in recovery. Utilizing the coping skills you developed with your treatment team can be immensely helpful when coming across upsetting content. 

The potential benefits of social media 

While social media can negatively affect body image and harm recovery, there are also ways to use it that could potentially protect and aid in your recovery. There are plenty of body acceptance and eating disorder recovery-focused pages (including our Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok accounts) that can bring some joy and hope into your life, as well as teach you about eating disorders and recovery.

You can also find or create recovery-oriented groups and like-minded individuals who truly understand your experience. Doing so will help you find support, understanding, and community on your journey toward healing – all important to recovery. 

How To Protect Your Recovery When Using Social Media 

Teacher and inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant once said, “Comparison is an act of violence against the self.” How do you stop comparing your life, body, fitness routine, and food habits to others? It’s important to protect your peace in recovery in order to prevent relapse. Using social media during your healing journey may have its challenges. Here are some ways to put an end to toxic social media comparisons and support your recovery:

  1. Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel bad. You don’t owe anyone your social media friendship or following. You can use your discretion and choose carefully what accounts you want to follow. You can choose to unfollow influencer accounts if they trigger you. You can unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about your appearance. You can even unfollow friends if you find their accounts make you feel insecure or inferior. (You can also mute accounts so you don’t see their content.) Putting your recovery first is the most important thing. 
  2. Take a break. If social media leaves you feeling down, take a break. Some individuals implement a “no social media” day once a week. Some even choose to delete their accounts. The important thing to realize is that if social media is affecting you negatively, you can step away.
  3. Follow accounts that bring you joy. One way to make social media a safe space is to follow accounts of people in recovery and recovery-informed providers. Following these people can help transform your feed into something inspiring and educational, rather than triggering.
  4. Understand the reality. Remind yourself that social media doesn’t reflect reality; you often don’t know what others’ lives are truly like. People often present only the highlights of their lives, leaving out the challenges and imperfections.
  5. Create or join a supportive online community. One positive of these social platforms is the ability to make connections and create community. You may want to reach out to people who are also in recovery or join recovery groups. You may be surprised by the strength you can find in a community of people who understand what you’re going through.
  6. Be real on your personal accounts. Lots of folks find comfort and confidence in being honest on their personal social media. By sharing unedited images or by opening up on difficult days, you can feel authentic, real, and validated in your truth. This honesty also benefits those around you because it verifies that everyone has bad days.

The relationship between eating disorders and social media is complex. On one hand, social media can contribute to a comparison culture and reinforce unrealistic beauty standards, which can potentially encourage disordered eating behaviors. On the other hand, social media can also provide a platform for body acceptance, recovery-focused communities, and support for the healing journey. With the right mindset and strategies, you can harness the positive aspects to support your recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with body image concerns and/or disordered eating, reach out for support as soon as possible. The Emily Program can help. Call us today at 888-364-5977 or, if you prefer we call you, fill out our online form.

Get help. Find hope.