Social Media: Helping Us Connect with Friends and Reminding Us Repeatedly that We’re Ugly (Maybe)

You are an 18, 19, or 20-something year-old and you are an active social media participant. You have your own Facebook profile to check up on your friends, find out about upcoming events, and update your photos and statuses. But, admit it: a large part of the reason you have a Facebook is because everyone else has one and you don’t want them to forget your existence while they’re online. But what is the exposure to the content your friends post doing to you? How does it influence what you post and how you feel about yourself offline?

If you’re a teenage girl, your Facebook newsfeed could be sending you into a horrible, depressing spiral of negative body-image and nonstop competition among friends for the best body. In her article, Social networks have young women competing against each other for the best body, Amanda Enayati references one teen user, Amanda Coleman, who decided to leave Facebook because she was sick of being bombarded with images of her friends looking perfect and feeling the pressures to look as good. Coleman said that Facebook acted as a gateway-social-network that led some of the girls in her college sorority to become members of pro-eating-disorder sites. Apparently, images that these girls saw of their friends looking perfect on Facebook made them feel “not good enough” themselves. As a result, they turned to these pro-eating-disorder communities online “where users encourage one another in anorexic and bulimic behavior” since, in the minds of the sorority girls, “what they had the most control over was their weight.” Coleman says her sorority friends flew down “a slippery slope” from “normal” social networking sites to ones centered around encouraging eating disorders.

Additionally, Coleman seemed to think that feelings of body-hate among her teen friends were “contagious,” even among those who previously had a positive body image. This teen viewed her friends as being powerless against the forces of Facebook, unable to fight off the negative body-image-effect it seemed to have on them. But as Rebekah Willett states in her essay, “‘As soon as you can get on Bebo you just go mad’: young consumers and the discursive construction of teenagers online,”  there is a “tension” between the depiction of “young people as acted on by societal forces and seeing them as independent actors in their own right.” These teen girls believe each other girl on Facebook is more perfect than them and feel they must try to post similarly perfect pictures. Meanwhile, they perceive themselves (or, at least, Coleman does,) as being completely unable to resist the pressures to post these perfect images and fall to negative consequences as a result (perhaps turning to an eating disorder). In this way, certain teen girls seem unable to avoid feeling negative about themselves by using Facebook.

In Willett’s essay, she discusses the social networking site Bebo, a social networking and blogging site popular in the mid-2000s. She states that young users enjoyed Bebo partly because it was easy to personalize. She says, “Young people appear keen to project an image of themselves through particular ‘lifestyle choices’ and have a desire to keep their image up to date as a reflection of their current self.” Much of what Willett describes about Bebo can be applied to Facebook. Enayati might call the constantly updated photos and information that make up a teen’s profile part of “the encyclopedia of beauty and status and comparisons” that Facebook has become.

Fascinatingly, though, this “encyclopedia” is not very diverse at all. It is made up largely of people taking part in the same activities and, according to Enayati’s article, of teen girls who all believe they have to look the same exact way as each other. As teen social media users, we are often eager to upload pictures of ourselves taking part in experiences with friends to show off our active social lives, but we all end up looking the same as each other and posting about the same kinds of events. Social media definitely exerts a pressure on its user to “have the best body” that might have not existed as strongly before. Previously, teen girls may have been able to avoid seeing the best looking girl in their community and, thus, avoid feeling badly about their own bodies. This is more difficult to do when these girls are showing up over and over again on your Facebook newsfeed. As Willett asserts, “adolesence is marked by an interest in peers…as a references point for personal preferences.” We cannot help but partly base our own decisions about our appearance according to our peers’ appearances. However, this is not as extreme as Enayati suggests. While some teen girls are pressured into dangerous behaviors, like eating-disorders, in an attempt to control their appearance, this is definitely not the norm.

The article includes advice to parents from Dina Borzekowski, who “believes parents need to be more aware of the messages reaching their children and adolescents” She says, “How many parents can really say they’ve seen the YouTube videos their teen has seen in the last two to three days? Parents need to be able to tell their kids to put their smartphones away.” But simply monitoring what kids and teens interact with on social media sites will not solve anything and keeping them from going on these sites after they’ve already used them will not take away the pressures they feel. As danah boyd concludes in her essay, “Why Youth ❤ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” parents are meant to be “guides” and “not policeman” to their children on social media sites. Girls who fall into eating disorders or other dangerous behaviors after seeing their friends’ seemingly flawless photos on Facebook probably do not enter into these behaviors solely because of social media. Parents should guide their children to have healthy body-images long before they become active on social media.

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3 Comments

  1. The issue posed by the article you found is extremely compelling. I know that the issue seems cliche, and perhaps in the context of angsty self-loathing teenage girls, it is. However, I think that the effect of social networks on body image and self-perception in general is one that transcends this vulnerable demographic. A few weeks ago, I was shamelessly stumbling (on StumbleUpon) to avoid doing other things that I was actually supposed to be doing. I stumbled upon a blog called The Londoner, and was totally engrossed. For at least an hour, actually. It’s not that I felt like the blog was particularly wonderful or relevant to me; what I found the most enrapturing was just that girl’s life, her narcissism, and her enormous fan-base. It got me thinking all meta about the internet and high school dynamics. Do we ever really outgrow our self-loathing and masochistic adoration and jealousy of people whom we perceive as superior to ourselves? I’m quite certain that it is no coincidence that “The Londoner” is clearly wealthy, has a porn star-esque body that she claims is au natural, and participates in exclusive, glamorous activities. And while she is a cheeky Brit, people don’t put her on a pedestal because she is an extraordinary writer. It got me thinking about the whole blogging and social media phenomenon and how it corresponds to self-esteem. I don’t see any real difference between those and the way that our capitalist, materialistic day-to-day society works. In fact, it got me thinking that perhaps the things that make teenage girls feel so self-loathing is even augmented through social media, even after that awkward age range. Perhaps that’s because there’s still this emergence of the “cool ones”–the ones who have everything we want. Except in the physical world, we can graduate from high school, not look back, and ten years later giggle about the formerly cool people who became morbidly obese. Social media and blogging creates a situation where the spectacle cannot be overcome in that manner. I don’t think that all blogs are guilty of this, but at the very least, perhaps the ones focused on lifestyle? The ones that, like many social networks, mandate photos of oneself, tremendous confidence and appeal, and elicit varying degrees of narcissism.

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  2. I was really inspired to respond to your post because I felt that you presented two extremely profound issues for this week’s reading. First, how social media has the ability to not only bring attention to physical insecurities – but also to encourage them.
    It’s also interesting to see how the technological institutions behind social media respond to these issues. As of February, Tumblr has adopted a no “self-harm” policy, essentially meaning that they will terminate any blog that uses language or images in support of eating disorders. Just this week Pinterest has taken a similar approach and is attempting to shut down pro eating disorder sites. But try as they may, thinspiration sites are still up and running, and unfortunately provide a cult-like community for these young kids. Which brings me to the second issue I felt you tastefully addressed: parenting in the digital age. While I definitely agree that parents today are faced with tech dilemmas that they themselves aren’t really sure how to handle, it is nevertheless their responsibility to get educated and let their kid know what’s up. This can apply to a lot of the topics we’ve covered on the subject: sexting, privacy on Facebook, and especially eating disorders. Like you said, all of this chaos takes place online yet it has a real and lasting affect on our offline lives as well. In my opinion, it is up to the parents to maintain a positive environment for their kids while preparing them for what they have the potential to face online. While they aren’t entirely responsible for their child – kids will be kids, after all – adults should still be aware of how to communicate with their children to prevent these issues and alert as to whether or not their young children are engaging in things like sexting or thinspiration communities.

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  3. The main problem that I had with the source article was the seemingly “cause and effect” approach taken with Facebook and “pro-ana” behaviours. Indeed, there is the possibility in which social network sites, such as Facebook, can promote a notion of “self-consciousness” in which users are more likely to be wary of what is posted and in what light they are seen; however, it is not to say that it ought to necessarily be paired with negative body image.

    More often than not, negative body image merely finds additional media to be a precipitant, rather the initial trigger. Instances in which Facebook could harm body image more explicitly would be actual insults or attacks on a person’s account/photographs. But the mere viewing (and this can be observed with numerous studies on magazine images) does not equivocate a decrease in body image. The issue on-hand is often rooted in various media, as well as personal and private issues, which may conflate to a problem with the self.

    On a relevant note, Mashable (http://barb.at/H4r8aJ) commented on a recent study, which is on the similar thread of Facebook and negative body image; however, it should be duly noted that Facebook is not to be considered the sole “antagonist.” And especially with the article that Mashable discusses, self-consciousness of what photos will be posted can also fall under the category of self-awareness for the sake of professionalism, as it is not made specific in the description.

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