The Impact of Social Media Trends on Body Image

Woman thinking about Instagram & Body Image

Contributor: Cindy Cole, LMFT, LPC, Director of Individual and Family Therapy at Timberline Knolls.

Eating disorders continue to be among the most deadly of psychiatric illnesses on a global scale. Knowing the impact the media has on the development of eating disorders, many countries are moving toward regulating advertising and marketing messages.

France recently passed legislation effectively banning the use of unhealthily thin fashion models, joining countries like Spain, Italy, and Israel. In addition, digitally altered photos will need to be labeled as such beginning October 1st.

According the Health Ministry of France, this legislation is intended to decrease the inaccessible ideals of beauty portrayed in the media, in an effort to combat the rise of eating disorders [1]. In a statement to the French media report regarding the legislation, France’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health noted, “Exposing young people to normative and unrealistic images of bodies leads to a sense of self-depreciation and poor self-esteem that can impact health-related behaviour [1].”

The Changing Landscape of Mainstream Media

Woman Using Social MediaThe portrayal of unrealistic beauty and body images in the media and throughout social media is a global issue, and digitally altered photos give the misperception of reality. Although research has demonstrated the multiple factors involved in the development of eating disorders, including genetics, individuals who are predisposed to having an eating disorder can be especially vulnerable to media that promotes dieting or an unattainable body type.

When adding in the rapidly evolving landscape of social media and the increased access to smartphones, many individuals have come to associate their self-worth with the number of “likes” and “shares” they might receive on posted images.

While the influence of digitally altered images is one of many factors involved in mainstream media, most people can now curate their own images to their liking with a swipe of their fingertip, thanks in part to an array of free applications for smartphones. People now have the ability to add filters, brighten their eyes, craft how they want their body to appear, whiten teeth, and more.

More and more individuals are carefully constructing the images they want others to see of themselves on social media platforms, creating perhaps an even more toxic culture that is damaging to body image. The reality is that many individuals are saturated by a media that is digitally altered, both indirectly through advertisements and directly through personal social media use.

Coupled with this is the viral dieting industry, promoting dangerous messages that are carefully justified in the name of health and wellness. This includes trends like “thinspiration” and “clean eating,” which fill social media news feeds with images that in fact stigmatize weight, disordered eating, weight loss and dieting.

One study that analyzed 50 “fitspiration” websites found parallel messages to pro-anorexia (pro-ana) websites, both of which contain hazardous messages that support eating disorders [4]. However, many people who follow these types of sites and associated social media platforms are unaware of the destructive influence.

Other dangerous trends that are continually circulating social media include everything from the “thigh gap” to “bikini bridge” and, more recently, the “ribcage bragging.”

Connection Between Social Media and Body Image

Man Using Social MediaStudies have demonstrated that more frequent social network use predicts increased body dissatisfaction over time in adolescent girls and boys [2]. Research has also found that a high level of body dissatisfaction is connected to a significant threat to adolescents’ well-being [3]. While social media or the mainstream media in general cannot be singularly responsible for the development of eating disorders, the influence cannot be ignored.

With the mass media surrounding women and men of all ages with images of unrealistic body types, there continues to be an unhealthy preoccupation with weight, a significant negative impact on body satisfaction, and the disruption of the emotional well-being for countless people in western culture [5].

Given the connection between eating disorders and the media, prevention and treatment approaches should continue to include awareness about media literacy in addition to advocacy for change. Professional and consumer activism in this realm can be the change toward more positive and realistic messages that are portrayed by the media, especially to the most vulnerable.

The steps that countries like France are taking to change the landscape of their media are important to challenging a social context that has been in place for decades. If you are interested in learning more about ways you can become involved with advocacy in this area, consider joining the efforts of the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC) or the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Change is possible and it starts with you.

Cindy ColeAbout the author: Cindy Cole, LMFT, LPC is Director of Individual and Family Therapy at Timberline Knolls.

In her role, Cindy oversees the therapist staff, which consists of 40 clinicians. She also works with management to focus on issues related to compliance, program development and interdepartmental collaboration.

Cindy received her undergraduate degree in Sociology/Criminology from Northern Illinois University and her Masters in Marital and Family Therapy from Northwestern University’s The Family Institute.

Cindy is a member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.


[1]: BBC News, “France Bans Extremely Thin Models”. Accessed 12 May 2017
[2]: de Vries, D.A., Peter, J., de Graaf, H. et al. J Youth Adolescence (2016) 45: 211. doi:10.1007/s10964-015-0266-4
[3]: Markey, C. N. (2010). Invited commentary: Why body image is important to adolescent development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 1387–1391. doi:10.1007/s10964-010-9510-0.
[4]: Boepple L, Thompson JK, A content analytic comparison of fitspiration and thinspiration websites. Int J Eat Disord 2016 Jan;49(1):98-101
[5]: Spettigue, W., & Henderson, K. A. (2004). Eating Disorders and the Role of the Media. The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review, 13(1), 16–19.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 30, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 30, 2017.
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