The Surprising Way Social Media Can Shape Young Girls' Bodies
The colossal expansion of technology has revolutionzed young women's lives in many ways. With the click of a button, girls can immediately become informed about what’s trending and playing, who’s commenting and posting, what they should perceive as right or wrong, and beyond. But while the way in which the Internet is shaping young women's minds has been relatively well publicized, less attention has been paid to the way in which it impacts their bodies, too.
The Internet has certainly been a source of body positivity and empowerment in recent years. Many plus-size models have seen unprecedented success and visibility thanks to social media, for example, and plenty of body positive hashtags have trended over the past year or so.
But the addition of these body positive images has done little to eliminate the longstanding, media-created image of the "perfect" female body. This "perfect" body is essentially a skeleton covered in thin, fair skin and is an image that has transitioned from traditional media to social media. Tumblr blogs, harassing comments, and glamorized mental illness posts — like those on “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) websites — that bolster this image have existed for years.
I experienced this firsthand. I remember first signing up for Tumblr and following “raw vegan,” “health and fitness,” and “gluten-free/sugar free” lifestyle blogs. The radiant imagery and edited photos of 16-year-old girls lying on the beach with their ribs showing, sipping green juices and "all-natural, 100% vegan and organic" captions sparked jealousy in me. I envied those Tumblr girls and wanted to be like them.
I started to post my own half-naked pictures and the swift approval (and disapproval) of online strangers began to fuel a dangerous disorder. The power of manipulation, misinformed comments, and a stream of "perfect" body images acted as triggers and I began to calculate my 900-calorie, low-fat daily food intake. Over the course of a few months, I gained approval from other bloggers — I, too, became "enviable," and traveled down a dangerous road to an eating disorder.
I recovered from borderline anorexia in July, 2015 after battling it for six months. An estimated 30 million Americans also suffer from eating disorders (75% women and 25% men) at some time in their lives, according to ANAD, and anorexia has a mortality rate 12 times higher than any other cause of death in women ages 15 to 24.
This is notably the same demographic of women who are on the Internet in full force. 92% of teens report going online in general and 24% do so "almost constantly," according to a 2015 study by Pew Research Institute. 71% of all teens use Facebook, half as many use Instagram, and four-in-ten use Snapchat, according to Pew.
I’m healthy and recovered now, but I am angry. I am angry that girls as young as 9-12 years old feel uncomfortable in their bodies and that the vast majority of all ages are unhappy with their bodies. I am angry that eating disorders, disordered eating and body dysmorphia have become an almost accepted, universal reality among teenagers. I am angry that mainstream media outlets — and now, it seems, social media platforms — refuse to acknowledge or change the role they've played in this increasing problem.
But we can each make a difference. Everyone who uses social media should be careful about the content they post and comments they leave on others' images. I speak from experience when I say even just a simple comment, a single post, can make all the difference.
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