How Social Media Complicates the Positive Body Image Revolution

These messages have the power to seriously warp our self-image, health, and body goals.

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Last year I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now, but I never gave much thought to how my weight could be affecting my health. I felt great, wasn’t taking any medications, and thought of myself as generally fit and active. My self-image was positive, and I liked the curves that made me feel womanly. More importantly, I always felt sexy and beautiful in a way that had very little to do with my physical appearance. My age helped—as a younger woman, I had worked hard to maintain my 120-pound physique, but at age 60, it just didn’t seem all that important anymore. I ate and drank whatever I wanted, I relaxed into my body, and life was good.

Then one day, a friend of mine casually shattered my shell of complacency. “Sandy,” she said, “you look great. You’re fit, and active, and healthy, but you’re 60. What’s going to happen to your health when you’re 70?” That got me thinking. Would I gain even more weight over the next decade? Would the added strain cause my overall health to deteriorate prematurely? Was I using the positive body image revolution as an excuse to be overweight?

These are difficult questions that everyone has to answer for themselves, but I decided then and there that I was going to be healthy for my entire life and that I was not going to risk my long-term health by being overweight any longer. Ten years from now, I want to benefit from the same levels of energy, health, and fitness that I have enjoyed for my entire life. My decision had nothing to do with body image—it had everything to do with saving my own life.

Ask Scientists, Not Social Media

The more I researched the issue, the more I realized that the science is clear: Being overweight is dangerous, especially if the problem is left unchecked. The World Health Organization makes the potential consequences of being overweight or obese clear:

“Being overweight or obese can have a serious impact on health. Carrying extra fat leads to serious health consequences such as cardiovascular disease (mainly heart disease and stroke), type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis, and some cancers (endometrial, breast and colon). These conditions cause premature death and substantial disability.”

What is not widely known is that the risk of health problems starts when someone is only very slightly overweight, and that the likelihood of problems increases as someone becomes more and more overweight. Many of these conditions cause long-term suffering for individuals and families.

Suddenly, I realized that what seemed like “just a few extra pounds” was actually a long-term health hazard. Over the years, I had let myself slip into complacency about my weight, using social media movements like the “positive body image” movement as excuses to make easy, unhealthy choices. And, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one developing complicated feelings about the body-related messages—positive and negative—I was receiving via social media. Brittanny Burr, editor at large for Psych N Sex, believes that the movement represents an overreaction to our culture’s obsession with being skinny. She believes that the notion of unconditional acceptance of your body, no matter what it looks like, came about as a response to the constant “messages out there about what we should be eating, how our bodies should look, what our lifestyles should be like, and so forth.”

Without doubt, these messages have the power to seriously warp our self-image, health, and body goals. Maggie Winzeler, who holds a Master’s degree in Sports Industry Management from Georgetown, explains the problem, saying, “Nowadays, women of all ages are assaulted by something far worse than beautiful celebrities in magazines; we’re confronted by normal women on social media posting images that are posed, staged, edited, and filtered. We’re rarely seeing reality, and the American ‘me, me, me’ focus has been exacerbated by the external gratification that we gain by getting likes on social media. Everyone feels like they have to have their own ‘brand’ and if they aren’t ‘seen’ by the world then they’re worth less.”

The problem with all of these competing voices about health on social media is that they don’t actually relieve any of the emotional pressure associated with body image. Before, everyone was caught up in being thin, but now, everyone feels pressure to have a healthy body image instead. The pressure still exists—it just presses on a different emotional pain point now. On top of that, no social media campaign, no matter how positive or inspiring, has the power to make us healthier. Only we have the power to make healthy choices for ourselves, and we won’t see any progress until we start doing healthy things instead of just talking, tweeting, and posting about them.

Photograher: Josefina Hunter

It’s Time for a New Paradigm

What if, instead of getting caught up health movements, we simply got caught up in our own wellbeing? Maybe it’s time to change the conversation entirely. U.S. Olympic Sports Nutrition Consultant Dr. Mike Israetel addressed this possibility, writing, “Refocusing the issue must inevitably be a personal choice each woman makes for herself about what she’s going to take the most pride in with respect to her life.”

Your personal health should never be about anyone else’s insecurities or goals. Instead, your physical and emotional health should be parts of your life that you nurture and work on according to your own needs. The benefits of improving physical health are endless—a stronger immune system, longer lifespan, more energy, and less stress, to name a few—and those goals should be our motivation for change. We would all be much happier if we stepped away from the millions of screaming, self-focused voices coming from social media in order to focus on our individual health and our personal needs. We all have the strength to know ourselves and create a better life, but sometimes that means removing the distractions that hold us back and keep us in denial about what’s actually best for our wellbeing.

Photographer: Josefina Hunter

At the end of the day, none of us has all the answers. There’s a big part of me still that doesn’t want to care about my body size, but another part of me remembers the complacency that way of thinking created in my own mind. That kind of passive acceptance put me on a path that could have endangered my health going forward, and it was time for me to independently rethink my choices. Today, I have decided for myself (and no one else) that I accept my body and that I am committed to being proactive when it comes to my good health habits so that I can be even more fit, healthy, and energetic ten years from now than I am at this moment. My hope is that each of us manages to find the goals and lifestyle that make us happy, healthy, and fulfilled, no matter what anyone on social media says. 

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