The Impact of Social Media on Body Image

A UConn psychologist discusses the 'selfie' culture, and how to approach a friend or family member who may have an eating disorder.

A new study estimates that approximately a half million teens struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating. Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating can cause serious physical problems and, at their most severe, can even be life-threatening. As we mark National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Feb. 22-28, we asked UConn Health’s child and adolescent psychologist Karen Steinberg-Gallucci about the impact social media may have and some tips on how to approach a friend or family member who may be suffering from an eating disorder.

Body image is a constant concern for many young people, both boys and girls. (Shutterstock Photo)
Body image is a constant concern for many young people, both boys and girls. (Shutterstock Photo)

Some health experts are warning of the dangers of the “selfie” culture for those with eating disorders. Why is that a concern?

I think anytime there is a preoccupation with physical appearance, whether through magazines, TV, or movies, promoting unrealistic images that are unattainable for most women or girls, this creates a risk for eating disorders. The “selfie” culture is another example of being excessively concerned with physical attributes to the neglect of other, more meaningful qualities about a person.

Do you think our obsession with smart phones and social networking has contributed to the rise in eating disorders?

I wouldn’t be surprised. There is a compulsive quality to the use of these devices and the social networks for many people. They become a way of distracting oneself or escaping from difficult or uncomfortable feelings, such as boredom, sadness, frustration. Whenever we become habituated to “getting away” from our immediate state, we become vulnerable to addictions, compulsions. I would consider eating disorders in that category – the drive to attain a certain physical ideal and the willingness to engage in accompanying behaviors (such as starvation, or purging) which are detrimental to one’s health and well-being.

If someone suspects a friend might have an eating disorder, what should they do?

As with many types of concerns, I think it can be helpful to find a gentle and supportive way of discussing eating disorders with a friend. They might first identify a good time to bring up the concern. They can do three things: share their observations, express concern, and offer help. Example:

Hi ___, I’m wondering if we could find some time to talk. There’s something that’s been on my mind. I’ve noticed over the past few months that you don’t seem to eat very much and don’t seem to enjoy food anymore. I remember we used to love to go out to lunch and now you aren’t interested. I’m concerned because it seems like you’ve lost some weight and I’m worried about your health. I hope it’s okay to say these things as your friend. And if there is anything you’d like to talk about, I’m here. I’d love to be helpful to you if I can, and I know there are really good people who work with these issues that you might want to talk to.

What are important things to say and important things not to say when talking with someone who might have an eating disorder?

I think it’s important not to come across as judging, disapproving, or as though you have all of the answers. It’s also not a good idea to use jargon, or potentially stigmatizing terms. Your goal could be to foster an openness to looking at this issue, rather than eliciting shame. For example, saying “you look really skinny” would not be advised because it could be shaming, and also focuses too much on a physical attribute.

Tennis champion Monica Seles is now the face of a new public service campaign about binge eating disorder. She suffered privately for more than a decade before speaking out. Is her story typical – even though she was an elite athlete?

Yes, many athletes, dancers, actresses, and actors suffer from eating disorders. There is so much pressure within these professions and activities to adhere to a certain standard of physical beauty or an ideal body type that many develop problems as a result. They cannot find a healthy way of adhering to these goals, and the goals seem more important than their personal health and well-being. We must share some of the responsibility as a culture in the way that we generously reward athletes, models, actors for attaining ideals such as being beautiful, thin, winning athletic titles, even while knowing they are harming themselves – such as self-starvation, binging and purging, ingesting steroids for improved athletic performance, sustaining multiple concussions and continuing to engage in the sport – in order to achieve these goals.

Seles is also a spokesperson for Shire Pharmaceuticals, which produced the first drug approved to treat Binge Eating Disorder, Vyvanse. How does it work?

It is in the drug class of stimulants. It has been indicated and used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It recently received approval for Binge Eating Disorder.