Self-Esteem and Body Image–the Influence of Culture and the Media

Peer acceptance and being “popular” is perhaps most important to children between the ages of 12 and 16, but it lasts a lifetime. The pressures put on people of all ages and genders by the media and on social media don’t stop at adolescence, though. Adults continue to be assailed by media images and videos of so-called perfect bodies throughout their lifetimes. 

In the U.S. and other Western cultures, body image revolves around attaining standards of beauty propagated by the media: thin body, flawless skin, attractively styled hair, and symmetrical features. This can lead to a triggering or exacerbation of body dysmorphic disorder, which is a powerful contributor to the development of various eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

According to Dr. R. Freedman, one of the first contributors to treating body dysmorphic disorder, body image is an “intrinsic view of the exterior self. The perception of a person’s body image can feel as intimate and real as the body itself.” This inner view of the body’s outward appearance can become distorted when the individual is constantly being exposed to idealized images and ideas of what a person’s body “should look like.” 

In people who already have low self-esteem or poor body image, seeing these images can make them feel their body, weight, or appearance aren’t good enough or valid enough. They may begin to feel out of control over their bodies or feel that they personally are not valid. Many eating disorders are, perhaps counterintuitively to a layperson, not about weight as much as they are about regaining a sense of control over some aspect of their lives. That’s one of the reasons that anxiety and depression are more common among people with eating disorders, as well.

How the Increase in Social Media Usage has Spurred More Eating Disorders

People of all ages also struggle with “finding themselves” and discovering a sense of self and meaning to their lives. Consequently, they are extremely vulnerable to identifying with celebrities they perceive as “perfect.” Because body image is heavily influenced by images of celebrities who are almost always incredibly thin and toned, the rates of eating disorders and a distorted body image are higher than it has ever been in the U.S.

Even more troubling is the rise of social media in the past decade or so. This phenomenon has reached virtually everyone in the United States and elsewhere, bringing even more idealized images and ideas directly into people’s socialization spaces. It’s difficult for anyone, let alone someone with body dysmorphic disorder, to remember that social media is every bit as idealized and manipulated as traditional media forms. 

Many social media celebrities are so-called “fitness influencers” who are de facto models. They monetize their unattainable body types by presenting themselves as the ideal body type and modeling clothes or promoting diets, paid for by companies trying to make the most of social media users’ poor self-esteem. And even “regular people” on platforms like Instagram are posting only the best images and videos. A common saying goes, “Social media is a person’s highlight reel.” All these factors can combine to further weaken a person’s body image, and possibly drive them closer to developing an eating disorder.

A person’s body image can be one of the main underlying causes of the development of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder. Other factors contributing to eating disorders in both teens and adults include personality traits such as perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and feelings of emptiness. Addressing body image one of the first aspects therapists focus on when treating eating disorders.