How is social media used by women with eating disorders?

By Claire Stewart, psychology student, University of Strathclyde

Around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, says the charity Beat, and 25% of those affected are male, but many more show some form of unhealthy eating behaviour.  

Social media can be experienced by users with eating disorders  as either a help or a hindrance to their condition: it can offer support and advice during a recovery period but can also encourage unhealthy behaviours and increase difficulties. But in most research studies, it is viewed as only positive or only negative, while in reality it is likely both, say the authors of a recent study.  

This prompts the following question: How do women with eating disorders use social media?

Photo by Georgia de Lotz on Unsplash

The authors Elizabeth Eikey and Kayla Booth interviewed 16 women with eating disorders about their use of social media and found  that their most used platform was Instagram and it was experienced in the following way:

 Instagram as a recovery tool

  • Learn about recovering by looking at images of women who have recovered from their own eating disorders
  • Track their recovery and celebrate their victories by posting photos of healthy meals or of themselves post-workout
  • Learn about foods and workouts from other accounts to develop a healthy diet and workout routine which they enjoy
  • Create awareness and reduce stigma of eating disorders by discussing their own circumstances, creating a safe space for others and encouraging healthy weight loss

 Instagram as a maintenance tool

  • Maintain their own eating disorders by looking at images of food and visually consuming food, by following  thinspiration accounts, or by posting revealing images of themselves for compliments and  affirmation
  • Compare themselves to others, including fashion models and fitness accounts, and comparing what they eat

How can people be educated about eating disorders?

The authors conclude that Instagram serves as a double-edged sword and can he helpful and harmful at the same time. To maximise the benefits and minimise any potential damage, healthcare providers should discuss social media use with their patients. It is also important to reduce the stigma behind eating disorders through discussion and education, which begins in the classroom. Discussion can encourage those with unhealthy eating behaviours to tell others and seek help, as well as discourage judgement from others.

See the full study here.

Is your beach body on social media “Too Good to Be True”?

By Claire Stewart, psychology student, University of Strathclyde

Photo by Ethan Robertson on Unsplash

As summer comes around, more and more photos are posted by women of their beach bodies, but just how honest are these photos? Studies have revealed that online portrayals are not always accurate and deceit can be used to help women appear closer to what is considered to be the ideal beach body – “thin, tanned, young, Caucasian, female and bikinied” (Small, 2007).

This digital practice was examined in a recent study by Kleim, Eckler and Tonner using several focus groups who discussed their thoughts and views of how the beach body is portrayed on social media and offline.

Why do people use deception when they post photos of their beach bodies?

Members of the focus groups emphasised that for a woman to post photos of her beach body, she must have a lot of confidence and believe that her body was already close to perfection. Even with this confidence, deceit can be used for several reasons.

First, it is used  for a woman to make herself look better in the photos and therefore feel better about herself. Participants even went so far as to suggest that it is more important to look good on social media than on the beach. 

In the case of some countries, such as Russia,  posting beach photos is a sign of status. It allows people to show off that they can afford  beach breaks.

There is also a belief that photos posted online have to be perfect and fit what is believed to be the ideal beach body, leading to women working hard to create that perfect image. However this could prevent women who are less body-confident from posting their own photos.

How are photos designed to deceive?

The process of creating beach body photos can involve deceit in several ways, according to participants: from the way the photo is shot to the time it is posted online.

A lot of effort goes into preparing for a photo on the beach.  The chosen outfit must be flattering to the subject’s figure. Facial expressions are mature and attractive – the focus is not to show enjoyment, but to look good! Poses are also carefully considered in order to appear thin and muscular.

Not only is the shot itself carefully orchestrated, but many photos are taken and only the best one is published online. These shots can also be edited – but this was considered acceptable only from celebrities, not from those who were considered friends. Further, only some forms of editing were viewed as appropriate, with filters considered normal but editing used to make the subject appear skinnier was generally criticised.

Participants suggested that edited photos were often unrealistic but despite this awareness of editing practices, photos often still resulted in women feeling bad about their own bodies.

Deception can also occur in the posting of photos. In the case of Instagram, photos are often given tags relating to a healthy lifestyle, such as health or fitness. It was also mentioned that these are excuses which are often used to hide the goal of attaining an “ideal beach body”.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

What can be done to stop the deception?

If deception is as prominent as members of the focus groups suggested and if the impact is as damaging to women’s body confidence, then surely something should be done to stop it. The following were suggested by participants as potential solutions:

  • Educating young people on the dangers of online deception, as well as what unedited bodies look like
  • Creating a “code of conduct” online to encourage less deception and more honest portrayals of women in their photos
  • Having advertising companies feature models with realistic body sizes in their campaigns
  • Researching ways of promoting body positivity

Overall, these focus groups suggested that the beach body as it is portrayed online is often a source of deception, which is potentially damaging for women who create it or view it. But there are solutions which could potentially lessen its negative impact and promote more honest digital portrayals of our real bodies on the beach.

See the full study here.

#HealthySocialMedia event took place at University of Strathclyde

On 30 April, our team members Julie Cameron (Mental Health Foundation – Scotland) and Dr Petya Eckler (U of Strathclyde) organised a public event to talk about social media and body image.

We gathered 50 people from 15 different organisations throughout Scotland, including pupils, teachers, social media influencers, mental health charities, youth charities, NHS, etc. The aim of the event was to share personal experiences from social media interactions and to discuss strategies and possible solutions for building a positive relationship
between social media use and body image.

Participants discussed how they present on and off-line, and how this may differ with face-to-face communication and how they feel when on social media. They also identified specific negative and positive behaviours on social media, and possible strategies for healthy social media use.

For videos from the speakers and the full report, visit the Resources page!