Social Media and the “Ideal” Body Image

Caitlin Hicks, Staff Writer

It’s no secret that many adolescent teenage girls struggle with body image. Researcher Dianne Neumark-Sztainer concluded that 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use unhealthy methods to control their weight, including fasting, skipping meals, vomiting, and using laxatives. Researchers have concluded that these unhealthy weight restricting methods stem from the belief that thinness is equivalent to health. While dietitians and licensed medical practitioners deny such claims, a uniquely stubborn culture that surrounds crash-dieting and obsessive calorie-counting continues to perpetuate the notion that thinness equates health. It simply isn’t true.

Using weight as an indication of the health or fitness of a person creates a breeding ground for negative coping behaviors. Obsessive working out, dieting, and anorexic, bulimic, or bingeing behaviors develop an unhealthy and detrimental space for the body and mind to coexist. We know that these behaviors aren’t necessarily effective in their vain attempt to create an image of health—doctors and scientists, together, back this claim with newly found research—so, why is it that these false ideas continue to maintain themselves in the subconscious of young adolescent girls? Social media is a large factor as to why the number of eating disorder cases has begun to climb, but, particularly the people behind the big accounts could be to blame: the influencers.

Big time influencers, like Khloe Kardashian who heavily endorses her “detox tea,” tend to create the trends. Perhaps these endorsements contribute more significantly to a weight-obsessive culture than we initially realize. These repetitive messages become ingrained to not only our conscious minds, but manifest themselves in the way that we act, think, and speak, particularly in disordered eating habits, such as starving, restricting, bingeing and purging. In the case of Khloe Kardashian, her “detox tea,” which some doctors have compared, more accurately, to a laxative drink, her ability to capitalize on her audience’s weight obsessive behaviors introduces a cycle: her promotions continue to perpetuate an unhealthy manner of reaching thinness in her current audience, which then trickles down to a younger, and much more impressionable audience. Researchers are interested in the links between these messages and disordered eating and mindsets; many point their fingers towards thin-idealization.

A psychology journal by Taona Patricia Haderlein, a researcher who deals typically with eating disorders, directly states, “Thin-ideal internalization, which describes the extent to which one ascribes to a slender body ideal… has been identified as a predictor of body dissatisfaction, negative affect, dieting, and disordered eating… Following the theoretical framework of the Psycho-Behavioral Dieting Paradigm, individuals with higher thin-ideal internalization may be more likely to experience negative outcomes from dieting than individuals with lower thin-ideal internalization.” So, it is in cases like this, where influencers in places of power choose to correlate their unhealthy behaviors to their physical appearance and organize that into one cohesive thought, that the thin-idealization is reinforced.

Secondly, trends surfacing through social media seem to enforce ideas that equate thinness to healthiness, as well. One particular video, which garnered hundreds of thousands of likes on TikTok, and many more views, featured an adolescent girl dancing on screen, with the words typed above her head, “When you realize coronavirus makes you skinny.” While the mood of the video seemed light-hearted and fun, thousands of other girls commented under the video, similarly expressing that they’d be willing to risk suffering from the virus to appear thinner. The casual manner in which these young, otherwise healthy girls, are willing to forsake their health to appear skinny, raises concerns.

As these trends continue to grow, and social media networks continue to reinforce them, it seems that these issues will only continue to grow. Perhaps, in the future, we can look to a world where influencer, social media, and audience work collectively to eradicate these false ideas, and soften the harsh blows it lands on the younger generation.