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Facts vs Myths: How social media promotes an unrealistic body image and eating disorders

Facts vs Myths: How social media promotes an unrealistic body image and eating disorders

Distorting reality

Editor: Adelina Tan

Image: Getty Images

Here's how much influence social media has on the way we perceive physical attractiveness—and the common misconceptions surrounding eating disorders

It's undeniable that many of us harbour concerns about our diet, weight, body size, and other factors that contribute to society's perception of physical attractiveness.  However, obsessing over our appearance can lead to a psychologically unhealthy preoccupation with our body and eating patterns. There have been many cases where one's self-esteem and overall psychological well-being is affected, which in turn causes significant physical health issues.

To understand why this happens, we have to look at how life has changed over the years. Numerous research and articles have documented that there is a complicated truth between social media and body image. In 2016, a study found that photo-based activities, such as scrolling through Instagram or posting pictures about oneself, were a particular problem when it came to negative thoughts about one’s body. In support of this is research that confirms self-comparison with social media posts can lead to self-judgment and negative views towards one's own appearance.

How social media can cause eating disorders

People with high self-comparison and self-judgment tendencies tend to internalize statements such as these: “I’m not as pretty as her”, “I’m not good enough” or “I look ugly”. These negative thoughts can be so deeply entrenched that they may not even realize what they've done while mindlessly scrolling through social media. Over time, toxic self-talk becomes a “mantra” or “tagline” that is often repeated and normalized.

That said, it must also be made clear that developing an eating disorder is not a choice—social media is just one of the many risk factors that can contribute to its development. It is not a lifestyle, nor is it an attempt to garner attention. It is a mental health condition that develops through a combination of various factors such as biological and genetic upbuilds; one's self-concept and self-esteem; and familial and societal expectations, among many others.

We should also understand that eating disorders don’t happen overnight. It can develop over a few months or a few years, with many overlapping issues that can be different for each people.

The types of eating disorders

The two most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Generally, adolescents and young adults are more at risk of developing either disorder—and the is higher among females.

Anorexia Nervosa

Those with anorexia nervosa tend to view themselves as overweight even though they are alarmingly underweight. Hence, they tend to persistently monitor their weight and try to avoid eating certain types of food, to the extent of severely restricting calories.

The common symptoms of anorexia are:

  • Being considerably underweight compared with people of similar age and height
  • Very restricted eating patterns
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or persistent behaviors to avoid gaining weight, despite being underweight
  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight
  • A heavy influence of body weight or perceived body shape on self-esteem
  • A distorted body image, including denial of being seriously underweight

Anorexia can be damaging to physical health. In the long run, people living with it may experience infertility; brittle hair, nails, and bones; and the growth of a layer of fine hair all over their body. In some severe cases, anorexia can result in more detrimental consequences to such as heart, brain, or multiple organ failure and even death.

Bulimia Nervosa

Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa tends to develop during adolescence and early adulthood. It can also appear less common among men than women. Those with bulimia frequently eat an unusually large amount of food in a specific period until they are painfully full. During this episode, they usually cannot stop eating or control their food intake—and what they binge on is typically what they would normally avoid.

For example, if someone with bulimia thinks that eating donuts can cause them to be fat, they would try to avoid it at all cause. However, during a binge-eating episode, they would consume a large number of donuts and then attempt to purge, so that he or she can compensate for the calories consumed and relieve any gut discomfort. Some common purging methods are forced vomiting, fasting, using laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and even excessive exercising.

The common symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating when feeling a lack of control
  • Recurrent episodes of inappropriate purging to prevent weight gain
  • Self-esteem that's overly influenced by body shape and weight
  • A fear of gaining weight, despite having a normal weight

In the long run, someone with bulimia can have an inflamed and sore throat due to excessive forced vomiting. They may also have swollen salivary glands, worn tooth enamel, tooth decay, acid reflux, irritation of the gut, severe dehydration, and hormonal disturbances. Severe nutritional deficits tend to happen although they may not look as underweight as someone with anorexia. For severe cases of bulimia, they may have severe physical health issues such as stroke or heart disease.

When to seek help

It's very important to understand that early intervention is crucial to address any psychological disorders, including eating disorders. If you experience the symptoms of an eating disorder or have issues with food, you're encouraged to seek psychological assistance from a valid clinical psychologist, counselling psychologist or psychiatrist. Talking to a professional will help you to understand your condition better.

For more health tips and advice, click here.


Sam Jeng Mun is a senior lecturer and clinical psychologist at Taylor’s University. Besides being a lecturer in private universities for the past nine years, her professional experiences also include working in a government hospital, private hospital, and private practice. In her clinical practice, she mainly conducts psychotherapy, psychological consultations, psychological workshops and talks and psychological assessments for children and adults. She is passionate about building awareness about mental health and improving the level of mental health literacy among people.