Limiting social media use and being selective about what you view can help cultivate a positive body image.
“I just had to delete it,” my patient announced at the beginning of a therapy session, referring to a popular social media app. She noticed that after scrolling through posts of friends’ beach vacations and celebrity glamour shots, she felt sadder, more anxious, and increasingly self-critical.
Her experience is quite common and is consistent with a growing body of research highlighting the negative impact of social media use on mood, anxiety, and body image. These studies show that while spending more time using social media is associated with poorer body image, the content individuals view is just as influential. In particular, social media apps that primarily show pictures rather than text and content focused on weight-loss tend to promote social comparisons that can adversely influence body image. In contrast, a recent study suggests that body positivity content can improve body image. An individuals’ social media feed is determined by an app’s algorithm. Following, liking, and sharing specific content alters the algorithm and directs similar content into one’s feed in the future. Thus, I encourage individuals with body image concerns to seek out and engage with body positivity content.
Given the strong societal emphasis on pursuit of health and thinness as the ideal, current high rates of body dissatisfaction aren’t surprising. Higher levels of body image concerns may drive disordered eating behaviors and in rare cases indicate a patient has body dysmorphic disorder. Both conditions should be treated by a mental health specialist. For moderate body image concerns, clinicians may help patients develop a healthier body image with the following recommendations:
1. Focus on function over form.
Identify and practice gratitude for what your body is able to accomplish each day. The human body is an amazing machine, and we often take daily activities for granted such as visualizing a beautiful scene, listening to our favorite song, and even breathing!
2. Set and/or reduce time limits for social media use.
Instead, allocate that time to engage in activities that boost your mood and leave you feeling productive, relaxed, or energized.
3. Find joyful movement.
A recent study suggests that even a single bout of exercise is associated with immediate improvement in body image. Identify a physical activity that is safe, enjoyable, and easily accessible, and set realistic goals with respect to time, distance, and intensity to prevent injury and increase sustainability.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.