We spend so much of our lives online, but what sort of impact is it having on our health? Healthy Food Guide editor-at-large Niki Bezzant delves into the world of social media.
Once upon a time, how a woman’s body changed during and after pregnancy was a private affair. Women might take a few photos for posterity and for family, but most of the time the wider world didn’t see, or comment on a growing (or receding) bump.
That’s all changed now. Pregnant bellies are a standard feature of Facebook and Instagram feeds the world over, and the effect of those images can be wide-ranging.
When Australian fitness trainer Chontel Duncan posted pictures of herself during her pregnancy with a barely-detectable bump and visible abdominal muscles, she attracted global attention, along with criticism and plaudits in equal measure. There was even more noise when she posted 10 weeks post-birth, displaying a sculpted form and super-flat tummy. Facebook comment was swift and plentiful. ‘Show-off’, some said.
“Whatever happened to taking care of your body for yourself and not caring what others think or how many likes you get?” said another.
Many women expressed the insecurity Ms Duncan’s images made them feel. Comments included: “Too bad I couldn’t do this… I still was barely walking up stairs and healing from my C-section infection 10 weeks out”, and “I wish my body would bounce back like that … all that stretchy skin that I can’t get rid of”.
Pregnancy selfies are the tip of the social media iceberg. There are thousands of fitness, wellness and health bloggers and social media stars whose lifestyles, bodies and diets are displayed daily for the world to see.
Social media and body image
Recent research reveals that social media can have effects beyond entertaining us and connecting us with friends.
AUT University psychology senior lecturer Pani Farvid says social media can affect how we feel about our bodies.
“When you see a very narrow version of beauty repeatedly displayed, from various social media sources, it can give you the sense that this highly narrow ideal is ‘normal’ and that you never match up,” Dr Farvid says.
She has seen this emerge in her research.
“We have seen it with teen girls when talking to them about their daily media consumption…there is this sense of hyper-criticalness of the self – where young people (especially girls) are feeling inadequate,” she says.
“They may say they feel they are not slim enough, toned enough, pretty enough, not fashionable enough… and they can spend a lot of time either thinking about this or trying to be different – at the cost of putting energy into other things like their education, hobbies, sports or social issues.”
A 2016 review of the impact of social media use on body image and disordered eating found an overall negative association between the two (while acknowledging more research is needed). Another recent study found women who post ‘fitspiration’ images on Instagram showed significant signs of disordered eating. Almost a fifth were at risk for diagnosis of a clinical eating disorder, compared with 4 per cent of the comparison group who posted travel images.
Nutritionists and psychologists also express worry that, for women especially, pursuing an ideal of perfect eating could be a gateway to more seriously disordered eating.
In a Vice article, writer Ruby Tandoh describes recovering from bulimia through a focus on ‘wellness’ – but found herself bound by just as strict a set of rules and disordered thinking about food as she had been before.
Showing our best selves
Social media use is part of everyday life, and 2.8 million New Zealanders use it regularly. Social networking sites – just like any public place – are somewhere we want to show the best side of ourselves.
Head of Victoria University’s School of Marketing and International Business Val Hooper, who has researched what she terms the ‘dark side’ of the internet, explains.
“We want to present an ego of ourselves that’s as positive as possible.
“Think about social media like a CV… we pump up the good things and we keep quiet about the bad. We manage our image,” Dr Hooper says.
That means when we’re scrolling through our friends’ feeds, we’re most likely to see the fun holidays, lovely meals and exciting gatherings. It’s less likely we’re going to see illness, stress, arguments and work worries. We can end up with a false impression of what other people’s lives are like.
This is true of food and health content, too. Social media wellness stars are hugely popular. But we may forget that being healthy – and showing that off – is a full-time job for many of them. They spend most of their time curating a healthy image. For ordinary people, this may create feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. When we compare ourselves to those perfect images, we can often feel we come up short.
When I asked members of the Healthy Food Guide closed Facebook group, Kick-starters, for their thoughts, this sentiment came through loud and clear. “It seems everywhere we look, someone is showing off amazing weight loss or flat abs only weeks after having children,” says one group member, Angela.
“It’s totally soul destroying for those of us who, 16 years later, are still struggling. Weight loss is such a difficult journey and to feel belittled or ashamed doesn’t help at all. It can really send you into a dark place if you don’t have enough faith and belief in yourself.”
Perspective is important here, Dr Hooper says.
“Keep in mind that any sort of media is trying to entertain you, so they’ll show you beautiful things because we all love beautiful things. They’ll show you shocking things, like someone with a tiny waist. We just need to be realistic and know that’s what we’re going to be served up. We have to choose what we’re going to consume from that buffet.”
Show me the money
Another thing we may not be aware of is that, increasingly, social media ‘influencers’ – people with large followings – are paid to post. It’s a new form of celebrity endorsement. But, unlike traditional advertising, this is not always clear to the viewer. Although the Advertising Standards Authority recommends the use of the hashtag #ad for paid posts, it’s not often used, and there’s potential for us to be confused about what we’re seeing. What we may think is a real recommendation, may actually be a paid advertisement.
“People are beginning to understand that you don’t become a YouTube millionaire by just being on YouTube. Something else has to follow that,” human insights researcher Angela Hook says.
Brands like using influencers because of the personal touch they give, Ms Hook says.
“It becomes peer to peer, which is powerful.”
Increasingly, we consume our news via social media, and the same is true for health and food information. But, unlike other media, on social media everyone is a publisher, and anyone can portray themselves as an expert, whether they are qualified or not. This means it’s easy for us to be misled by something that sounds ‘science-ish’ because lots of our friends have liked and shared it, when the information may not be true.
Chef and paleo diet promoter Pete Evans has attracted criticism for his social media behaviour. His unscientific recommendations to his million-plus social media following, on issues such as sunblock, dairy consumption and autism, have led scientists and doctors to publicly attack him for spreading false information. He is known for blocking anyone who queries or criticises him on his Facebook page. This has led to the formation of another Facebook page: Blocked by Pete Evans.
This highlights another modern phenomenon: the social media echo chamber, also sometimes called the ‘filter bubble’. Just as in real life, on social media we tend to socialise with people whose views and opinions reflect our own. This means we may never even see viewpoints that challenge our own thinking.
Social media platforms compound this problem, by showing us more of what they think we like, based on our online behaviour.
“We are being fed stuff without knowing it’s happening,” explains Ms Hook.
“You may click on something once out of interest, then you’ll start to see more and more of it, and maybe your peer group are seeing the same thing, and suddenly it becomes far more common than it actually is.
“So, your perspective begins to change, and you lose sight of reality.”
On the bright side
Social media can also be a force for good.
“It can be very heartening, very supportive, and a very loving environment in many instances… and many people, particularly youth who tend to be shy, get their socialisation through social media,” Dr Hooper says.
And, when it comes to body image, too, she says the wider variety of bodies we may be exposed to on social media may be helpful.
“It’s helped us to be more realistic. Not all [of the bodies we see] are the body beautiful,” she says. “It can be empowering.”
Dr Farvid agrees. “If it can allow the space for more diversity and allow room for multiple and plural ways of being, it can be good. We want messages that help us feel better and more accepting of who and what we are – rather than the constant need to change or adhere to unrealistic standards.”
Social media can provide valuable support for people with specific health goals, too. The Kick-starters group, mentioned earlier, gives members a safe place to talk about their struggles and successes, without judgement.
“I find that the ‘like-minded’ mentality helps me stay focused. Not just the first post, but the comments and feedback the post gets. Sometimes I can laugh, and other times I can relate,” says Gloria, a group member.
Sorting the good from the bad
So how can we discern, when we’re scrolling through our feeds, what’s useful and what’s inaccurate, or damaging?
Dr Hooper says seeking variety in our social media favourites is one of the best things we can do. If we only focus on wellness experts with ‘perfect’ lives, it can be damaging, she says.
“But there’s nothing more heartening than looking at somebody showing their stretch marks or their cellulite. People think, ‘thank heavens, I’m not abnormal’. So, we owe it to ourselves to balance the inputs.”
Dr Farvid suggests being critical of what we see.
“Don’t just buy into all the information you come across,” she says.
“Take 80 per cent of what you see with a grain of salt.
“And, before you act on something, go looking for other points of view. Don’t wait for them to come to you, because they won’t.”
Wise insight comes from another Kick-starter group member, Alison: “I think the key is taking the best bits and pieces from different sources and applying them to your journey. I find it important to not get so hooked into social-media hype around healthy eating and weight loss that you get into the comparison trap, and forget your own journey can look very different to someone else’s.”
Who should I follow?
Looking for uplifting and empowering people to follow on Facebook or Instagram? Here are some we like:
Claire Turnbull: Our own Healthy Food Guide nutritionist posts real-life updates, recipes and tips that are always positive.
Thinking Nutrition: Tim Crowe is an excellent nutrition writer and researcher who is very good at clarifying controversial issues.
Angela Berrill: A dietitian who posts unapologetically about how tricky feeding a family is, even for a nutrition professional.
The Nutrition Guru and the Chef: Australian nutritionist Tara Leon has a no-nonsense approach to healthy eating – and she’s not afraid to call out the faddish and false.
Constance Hall: An Australian mum who posts down-to-earth and laugh-out-loud funny content about what it’s really like to be a mum. (Note: some nudity and sexual content.)
Celeste Barber: An Australian comedian who provides a refreshing antidote to the perfection of many social media images by recreating celebrity photo shoots with hilarious results. (Note: some nudity.)
Laci Green: A young American woman dispensing down-to-earth, friendly and accurate sex education advice on YouTube for young people. She also covers body image issues such as fat shaming. (Note: some sexual content.)
Body Image Movement: Taryn Brumfitt is a former body-builder turned body-positivity campaigner. Her film Embrace explores why so many women hate their own bodies, and how we can escape the pressures of society and the media and love ourselves.
What to do if social media becomes a problem
If you’re worried about how social media is making you feel:
- Remember, it’s your choice to participate in social media groups and it’s up to you who you follow, who you are Facebook friends with, and who you engage with online.
- Try to actively seek information and viewpoints from outside your ‘bubble’. This will help you realise that what has felt all-consuming is not reality and gain valuable perspective.
- If you’re feeling worried or upset, talk to a trusted friend or Lifeline on 0800 543 354. For young people, talk to an older person or parent, school counsellor or Youthline on 0800 376 633.
- Make sure you have time offline, engaging with the real world. Try having one day a week free from social media.
- Don’t forget other media, such as newspapers and magazines – which are edited and fact-checked – are useful sources of accurate information.