The relationship between social media and body dysmorphia in California

Social Media and Body Dysmorphia

Looking at the relationship between social media and a person's perception of their body.

Table of Contents

During the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, social media usage increased by 61%2. This is a massive spike in an already growing trend, highlighting the need to reflect on its mental health impacts.

It’s already acknowledged that there can be a link between social media and body image. With access to an infinite feed of content, the online realm can change your view on physical reality.

In some cases, social media can contribute to body dysmorphia. In the U.S., it is estimated that about 1 in 50 people struggle with body dysmorphia1. However, this number may be greater due to people’s reluctance to talk about their symptoms and receive a diagnosis.

Understanding Positive and Negative Body Image

Your body image is the way you view your physical self in your reflection, in photos, and in your mind3. Body image is a culmination of beliefs and feelings about the way you look. Generalizations, experiences, environment, and culture are a few influences that shape it.

It’s an important self-reflection because it affects how you engage with life. This is one of the four aspects of body image known as behavioral body image4. For example, if you believe that something is wrong with you, you are likely to have unhealthy behaviors that reflect that belief.

Positive Versus Negative Body Image

Having a positive body image involves a sense of acceptance about the way your body looks and functions10. You have a wide range of what you consider “beautiful,” and as such, you can find value in your physical appearance. When you have a positive body image, you view yourself in a relatively stable and positive way.

On social media, a person with a positive body image will engage with posts without it affecting the way they see themselves.

The other side of the spectrum is having a negative body image. This involves judgment, shame, and embarrassment about the way you look.

A person with a poor body image lacks confidence and acceptance of their body, often due to a distorted view of themselves. For example, a person may view their weight, shape, skin clarity and tone, or hair as not being good enough.

Developing a negative body image often comes from comparing yourself to others and to cultural beauty standards. Now that the world spends more time online, this comparison often happens when engaging with social media.

Seeing a feed full of seemingly perfect people can lead to viewing yourself as inadequate. For some, simply logging off or changing who they follow can remedy the issue. For others, it can contribute to something known as body dysmorphia.

Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is a condition where an individual becomes obsessive about a perceived flaw in their appearance. The word perceived is important here, as the issue may be imagined or unnoticeable to others. A person experiencing body dysmorphia becomes self-conscious about their appearance and believes that other people are noticing and judging them9.

Body dysmorphia is not to be confused with gender dysmorphia. Gender dysmorphia refers to the distress someone feels when there is a conflict between the gender they were assigned at birth and their own gender identity. Gender dysmorphia involves gender identity, while body dysmorphia involves appearance and attractiveness.

When suffering from body dysmorphia, a person will consistently check on their appearance in the mirror or in photos. This obsessive thought pattern leads to compulsions, which are actions in response to obsessive thoughts.

Experiencing body dysmorphia is more than simply being insecure about a feature of your body. BDD is an obsessive-compulsive cycle that is repetitive and hard to resist making it very similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The main difference between the two disorders is that people with body dysmorphia focus on appearance as opposed to other issues.

Body Dysmorphia Diagnosis

Body dysmorphia is diagnosed by having an excessive focus on slight or nonexistent flaws, totaling at least one hour a day7. For example, a person may fixate on the shape of their nose or the fullness of their lips.

The repetitive compulsions that come from this obsession distinguish it from negative body image. These compulsions don’t bring the individual any joy and can be observable by others.

Body dysmorphia can look like other mental health issues at first, such as social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, and OCD. While other conditions can stem from it, body dysmorphia tends to be the core issue.

Between 5.5 and 9.6 million people in the United States suffer from body dysmorphia5. Because it’s a prevalent issue in American culture, it’s important to consider social media’s impact on this condition.

Social Media and Body Dysmorphia

Social media isn’t the only cultural influence on body dysmorphia. For decades, there has been a lack of representation of normal-looking people in modeling, advertisement, and entertainment. Rather than including normal variations in the way people look, visual media mainly shows people who represent unrealistic beauty standards.

Unrealistic beauty standards didn’t start with social media but it has contributed to its continuation. People in this narrow category of beauty standards receive the most likes and attention which can reinforce the cultural illusion that people should look a certain way.

Consequently, the amount of time people spend on social media makes it a major influence on body image and dysmorphia. Social media provides endless content and has become a place where everyone is trying to achieve the “ideal” aesthetic for likes and followers.

To achieve this, people edit and use filters to portray an image of false perfection. Instagram, for example, has countless free filters to alter your appearance. You can also download apps like Photoshop and Lightroom to change your skin texture and body size.

It can be difficult to determine if a person has altered their appearance if you just see them on social media. All you’re seeing is a beautiful, 2-dimensional image of someone’s seemingly perfect aesthetic.

If you see that the way they look is getting them a lot of attention, you may begin to reflect and wonder if you should also change your appearance. This can create a gap between what someone actually looks like versus what they think they should look like.

With body dysmorphia, social media can trigger obsessive thoughts about appearance. Their feed may be full of people looking “perfect”, which can be a constant reminder of their perceived flaws.

This can lead to compulsive actions to try to remediate the issue. This isn’t to say that social media causes body dysmorphia, but rather that it can contribute to this condition.

Signs and Symptoms of Body Dysmorphia

Someone with body dysmorphia will repetitively take action in response to their perceived flaw.

First, they may have thoughts of comparison or may check their reflection in the mirror to assess the perceived flaw. From there, they may perform a variety of behaviors to try to fix the “issue” that they see.

These actions are repetitive and compulsive in an attempt to improve appearance. They can be conscious or subconscious behaviors.

There are also social indicators of body dysmorphia, such as constantly seeking reassurance from peers. Online, this could mean excessively striving for likes or comments on a post.

In some circumstances, a person may develop social anxiety or avoidance due to the fear of their appearance being judged. This could look like missing social gatherings or being absent from work.

When engaging with a post online, a person with body dysmorphia may begin comparing themselves to the “perfection” that they see. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, which in turn can lead to enacting one or more of these repetitive behaviors.

Compulsions, in and of themselves, take away from a person’s ability to function in a healthy and positive way. Additionally, this cycle can have other mental and physical health consequences.

Risks Associated with Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia can involve or lead to various medical and mental health issues.

It can blend into social anxiety, impairing the individual’s ability to engage with others in social and professional settings.

To try to fix perceived weight issues, a person may develop an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or orthorexia.

Due to the anxiety and possible isolation involved with body dysmorphia, individuals may also fall into substance abuse, depression, or suicidal thoughts.

One study showed that individuals with body dysmorphic disorder were four times more likely to think about suicide9. They were also 2.6 times more likely to attempt suicide than people without the condition.

Body Dysmorphia Treatment

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 to get help.
Otherwise, the first step in treating body dysmorphia is to seek professional diagnosis and support.
From there, various therapy and psychiatric methods can be used based on the individual’s needs.

Therapy and Medication

One route of treatment involves talk therapy otherwise known as psychotherapy. A type of psychotherapy generally used to help people with BDD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses the way individuals think, feel, and behave. As such, it can help change the destructive thoughts patterns that lead to obsessions.

In addition to therapy, there are psychiatric medications used to treat body dysmorphia. For example, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help treat symptoms8.

Mental health struggles, although common, are personal. As such, the treatment of body dysmorphia should be tailored to an individual’s needs.

Supporting Others and Contributing to a Better Environment

If you aren’t experiencing body dysmorphia but are concerned for someone who is, you can take action in a few different ways.

First, you can educate yourself on the issue. That way, you can come from a place of compassion and understanding when speaking with them.

Then, you can support them by being there for them and offering resources for them to get help.

In general, you can also make a difference by being thoughtful about what you post online. While editing photos of yourself can be fun, keep in mind that others may not realize that you’ve altered the way you look. To contribute to a more body-positive digital environment, be authentic about the way you portray yourself.

Even if you don’t suffer from body dysmorphia, social media can have an impact on body image. Be selective about who you follow so that you don’t buy into the idea of aesthetic “perfection”.

Social media can be perceived in a positive light because it can allow you to connect with and learn from others. With that intention in mind, change your feed so that you have more positive experiences.

Build a Positive Body Image

Body dysmorphia is a common disorder that can be exacerbated by the use of social media. This disorder can begin to affect your daily life. With the help of therapy, medication, and support you can find recovery and develop a positive body image.

If you think you’re suffering from body dysmorphia, please contact D’Amore Mental Health to learn more about our program. Our mental health professionals are prepared to answer any questions you may have and help you find the right program for your needs.


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