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Social Media and Body Image

Teenage girl looking through social media on her phone

As social media continues to play a central role in the lives of adolescent girls and young women, its influence on body image and the perception of beauty continues to grow. Social media not only exposes young girls to certain beauty standards and cultural ideals of womanhood, but emerging research shows it may contribute to the development of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, in females as well as males.

As many as 20 million American women and 10 million American men will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, and a large proportion of those affected are adolescents and teens. More than half of teenage girls and approximately 1/3 of teenage boys engage in eating disorder behaviors such as crash dieting, taking diet pills or laxatives, and self-induced vomiting.1

Social media may be a significant contributor to such behaviors. An eating disorder treatment center in Chicago revealed that 30–50% of its teen patients used social media as a means of supporting their eating disorders.2 A 2011 study conducted by the University of Haifa revealed that the more time teenage girls spent on social media websites like Facebook, the greater their risk was of developing eating disorders and negative body images. Another study conducted by Florida State University in 2014 also reported a correlation between Facebook use and disordered eating behaviors.3

Negative Influence of Social Media on Body Image

Girl crying in front of scale

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Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are both characterized by a distorted body image and abnormal eating behaviors, but they are different disorders.

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Media images have long played a role in the development of eating disorders. Research studies conducted as far back as the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that the decreasing weight of fashion models, actresses, and Miss America contestants between the 1950s and 1990s contributed to an increased discrepancy between the ideal female weight and the size and proportions of the average American woman at the time.1,4

During these decades, both the beauty and diet industries flooded women’s magazines, advertisements, and other forms of media with glorified thinness ideals and dramatically emphasized their importance, making many women feel a sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies. Surveys conducted in the early 1990s revealed that the number-one wish of young girls ages 11 to 17 was that they could lose weight and keep it off. Similarly, when middle-aged women were asked what they would most like to change about their lives, more than 50% responded with “their weight” as the answer.4

Despite growing knowledge and awareness of this phenomenon, the role of media in body dissatisfaction, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders has not changed over the years. On the contrary, social media may have a more negative impact than other forms of media as it plays a larger role in the daily lives of youth. Young girls not only have to deal with the objectification of famous women’s bodies in the media, but their own bodies, as well as those of their peers, are often subject to objectification through the posting of what’s come to be known as “selfies,” a photograph taken of oneself and posted on social media.

Not only has the nature of media consumption changed, but the audience has as well. Where youth were once just exposed to their surrounding peers, they can now readily access the opinions, behaviors, and ideals of thousands of people instantly. There are many online pages, groups, and hashtags that promote disordered eating.

As part of the so-called pro-anorexia (or pro-ana) or pro-bulimia (pro-mia) movement, these websites support those with eating disorders and encourage people to post photos of what they call progress. The thinspiration, thinspo, and thinspogram hashtags are used often by pro-ana and pro-mia communities to post photos of thin celebrities idolized as an inspiration for such eating disorders. These groups provide tips on becoming thin, hiding eating disorder behaviors, suppressing hunger, and keeping stomach acid from harming the teeth. In past years, many thinspiration websites were taken down as a means of prevention, but social media has made this information increasingly difficult to monitor and control.2,3

Social media can be incredibly dangerous for young people with low self-esteem and distorted body image, since they often find a sense of community and acceptance among pro-ana and pro-mia online groups that support and encourage their disordered eating. Where others may be expressing concern about their behaviors and weight loss, online pro-ana and pro-mia communities offer support and validation. The likes, thumbs-ups, and comments on their photos can provide reinforcement to continue losing weight despite health problems or concerns. Some users will even use their likes as inspiration for their behavior. For example, 1 like may equal 2 hours of fasting.2,3

Mental Health America points out that while social media does not directly cause body dysmorphic disorder, it can serve as a trigger for those with certain genetic or psychological predispositions, and may worsen symptoms in those already suffering from the disorder.5 Social media can increase a person’s exposure to body shaming as well as promote body obsessions, comparisons, and competition, all of which can contribute to disordered eating.3,4

How to Use Social Media for Body Positivity

Body positive campaigns showing diversity in woman sizeJust as social media can fuel eating disorders for many people, it can also help others find strength to seek and follow up with treatment. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) works with various social media platforms to ban certain hashtags, remove unhealthy and dangerous feeds, and provide a link to their website along with an advisory warning when certain hashtags or links are clicked.

NEDA has also made significant efforts to increase its social media presence, in 2011 launching Proud2BMe, a website that encourages adolescents and teens to have a healthy body image and relationship with food. There are also many pro-recovery hashtags that people in recovery from eating disorders can use to share with the recovery community, including:3

  • #prorecovery
  • #foodisfuel
  • #edrecovery
  • #edsoldier

Many people are beginning to use Instagram as a way to document their recovery and build a community of support and inspiration. Users in recovery post pictures of their weight gain progress and healthy-proportioned meals, along with lengthy descriptions of the various emotions, fears, challenges, and accomplishments of recovery. Those who use Instagram for recovery find comfort in sharing their story with a community, while still maintaining some degree of anonymity, often neglecting to include their last names or contact details. Others use the publicity of Instagram as a means of overcoming the immense shame and secrecy that often accompanies eating disorders.6

Just as there are individual accounts of recovery on Instagram and other social media platforms, there are social media groups and pages that promote eating disorder awareness, advocacy, recovery, and prevention. For example, one community, Beating Eating Disorders, has more than 28,000 likes on its Facebook page, and another, Eating Disorder Hope, has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter.

Treatment Options for Eating Disorders

Seeking treatment as soon as possible can increase a person’s chance of long-term recovery.Many people are susceptible to negative social media influences that can affect their self-esteem, body image, and relationship to food. Unhealthy eating patterns and behaviors can lead to a plethora of mental and physical health problems, many of which can be fatal. In fact, anorexia nervosa is the highest-leading cause of death for females ages 15 to 24, with a mortality rate that is 12 times higher than any other cause of death among this age group.1 Seeking treatment as soon as possible can increase a person’s chance of long-term recovery.

Some of the many treatment options available for those with eating disorders include:

  • Individual Counseling/Therapy: Individual counseling can help those suffering from eating disorders to recognize the underlying emotional causes behind their disordered eating, as well as change their eating behaviors. Because eating disorders are similar to behavioral addictions, many of the same therapies that effectively treat addictions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing (MI), also work for those with eating disorders.
  • Inpatient or Residential Treatment: Inpatient treatment in a residential facility is often the best course of treatment for individuals with severe eating disorders. It provides patients with the opportunity to physically and mentally stabilize and work on developing healthy eating patterns with the support of treatment professionals and peers. Common treatment options available at inpatient facilities include:
    Individual counseling for eating disorders
    • Individual counseling.
    • Group therapy.
    • Family therapy.
    • Peer support groups.
    • Nutritional counseling.
    • Meal assistance.
    • Complementary and alternative therapies.
  • Outpatient Treatment: Outpatient treatment centers typically offer the same forms of treatment as inpatient facilities, except care takes place on a part-time basis for a specific number of hours each week. Many people choose to follow up with outpatient treatment after being released from an inpatient program. Outpatient treatment may also be a good starting point for those with less-severe eating disorders or those who need to remain active in school, work, or other personal or professional commitments during the treatment process.
  • Peer Support Groups: A variety of peer support groups exist specifically for people suffering from eating disorders. Many of these groups follow the traditional 12 steps that are commonly used for alcoholism and drug abuse, including:
    • Eating Disorders Anonymous.
    • Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous.
    • Overeaters Anonymous.
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