“Reflections in the mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideals of beauty.”
I think to a large extent this is true. Over the last few decades there has been a tremendous increase in our exposure to popular culture and as a result, an increase in pressures to conform (whether we’re consciously aware of them or not). In addition, we’re often confronted with biased depictions of our friends’ happy lives and amazing experiences, which, while positive, are a mere snapshot of true life, leading us to feel more dissatisfaction with our own, natural, ups and downs.
The human brain is incredibly suggestible, everything we take in and experience has the potential to mold our ideas, without us always being aware of it.
Study after study from the 1990s onwards has reiterated that, particularly for young women, exposure to thin models in media causes more problematic body image issues and lower self-esteem about their own appearance, and internalization of these ideals raises the likelihood of eating disorders.
We have to remember that this impact reaches far beyond just young women, there’s no specific target – men and non-Western cultures for example, are just as susceptible.
A 2005 study has shown that a deeper understanding of image distortion (I.e. Photoshop) can reduce the negative impact of the idealized depictions we’re exposed to. Being able to apply a critical eye to this has also associated with some “cognitive dissonance” studies – where people are asked to question their ideas and challenge their pre-existing beliefs to create discomfort around the prominent ideals.
With an increasing amount of data to support the negative psychological impacts of social and mainstream media, we have notably seen a push in the other direction with the emergence of body positivity campaigns and diversification of media representation. Personally, I only see how this can be a good thing.
In my specific circumstance, I think there were many more underlying causes that contributed to my eating disorder, body dysmorphia, and mental health struggles aside from media alone. I do think societal pressures can largely contribute and reinforce detrimental behaviours but, with eating disorders for example, it’s not just a girl flipping through magazines deciding not to eat so she can look like a touched-up photo.
Mental health is so multi-faceted, we’ve barely scraped the surface in trying to understand it. I’m a fairly scientifically-minded person so I tend to graduate towards neurological (and somewhat psycho-social) theories about the topic, but I’ve noticed simple things day-to-day that can have a significant impact on my moods and would suggest the following:
1. Take a break
If I’m constantly flooding my mind with social media updates I find it helpful to disconnect from time to time. Taking a break from that constant exposure helps me refocus on the moment I’m living in (and obviously get that school work done that I’ve been procrastinating).
Continually checking for updates can leave me feeling like my brain “has too many tabs open” and my system gets bogged down – my anxieties start to increase.
People have been throwing around ideas about cell-phone/social media dependencies and addictions leading to higher levels of anxiety recently which I think is an interesting point but honestly, I’m too tired to look for scientific research on the topic at the moment.
2. Be selective
With the world at our fingertips, it’s easy to find pretty much anything you want online. From experience I know that I’m able to find both resources that might help me out of a tough situation or those that will drag me down further. It’s just a matter of what I decide to type in “search”.
I try to limit my exposure to toxic forums (some of you may have heard of some – like those promoting self-harm behaviours etc.) and I try to reduce my connections with accounts/people on social media that make me feel inferior or that I really don’t agree with. Sure it’s good to have a different scope of opinions, but for myself I’ve been able to start realizing how certain things can bring me down.
On top of unfollowing the “negative” accounts, I’ve been trying to increase my connection with positive resources and like-minded people. For when I inevitably end up on social media I find it more beneficial to be exposed to things like photography, poetry, body-positivity, mental health advocates etc. I’m definitely that person who follows several “inspirational quote”, “funny animal videos”, and “wholesome meme” accounts.
If anyone wants recommendations I’d be happy to share some of my favourites.
In general I think doing this just makes my feeds a more positive place.
3. Take everything with a grain of salt
I was raised in a science-centred, research-minded home and I was taught to question things. It’s helpful to remind myself that most of the photos I see have likely been touched up and that there are many social factors playing in to how these things can affect me.
Thankfully when I see those promotions for “skinny teas” and “dropping 10 pounds overnight” I’m more able to dismiss them for the nonsense they are. Being cautious/questioning can be a hard habit to develop if you don’t necessarily have experience with it but I personally feel like it has helped me refocus and remember what’s important (to a certain extent anyways).
Much like our own health (mental or otherwise) our exposure and use of contemporary media is in our own hands. With even more information showing us how impactful these cultural and social vehicles can be, its especially important we try to be mindful of their consequences and to use them responsibly.