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Keeping Up With Appearances

Online comparison and image control may worsen eating disorders.

By Samantha Rosenblum

Over the course of a decade, Facebook has revealed itself to be more than simply a way to connect with friends. It’s been labeled a time suck and the source of your foul mood; and it has replaced private, face-to-face interactions with very public—and often very personal—updates.

But a new study from Florida State University indicates that for college women, frequent Facebook use could have even more pernicious consequences: Data from 960 college women demonstrates that more time on Facebook is associated with higher levels of disordered eating. A two-part study looked at time spent on Facebook as well as the ways college women reported using the site in relation to reported eating pathology.

The research, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, shows that women with greater eating pathology reported not only spending more time on Facebook but also engaging in “appearance-focused behaviors, such as comparing their appearance to friends’ pictures and untagging photographs of themselves.” Twenty minutes of Facebook use (as compared with 20 minutes spent on an Internet search task) was associated with increased concern about weight and body shape as well as anxiety, which has been connected to eating disorders in past research.

As an online community populated by peers, Facebook provides the ultimate environment for social comparison; and there is an innate human drive to evaluate and define the self through comparisons with others. The relationship between frequent social comparison, especially relating to the body and disordered eating, is well-researched: A 2012 study published in Nutrients, for example, found a significant positive correlation between body-related social comparison and eating disorder symptoms, making such comparisons a target area for eating disorder treatment.

Social comparison itself may be nothing new, but the world of social media introduces a whole new dimension. According to study author Pamela Keel, professor of psychology and director of clinical training at FSU, the ability to control one’s image on Facebook, by posting, untagging, or even editing photographs, can seriously impact peer interactions and subsequent comparisons.

“When you’re having a face-to-face interaction, people look exactly how they look,” she says. “But on Facebook, users have the opportunity to be very careful in choosing the pictures they are going to post. If you’re comparing yourself to your peers on Facebook, you’re not comparing to the way they actually are—but instead to an idealized version of them.”

Comparisons made with idealized images have long been an issue pointing to eating disorder risk, but these images used to come only from the mainstream media and advertisements. Comparisons with idealized images of peers can be even more dangerous. According to social comparison theory, we are more influenced by comparisons made with those we perceive as being more similar to ourselves.

In addition to the issue of comparison, Facebook, with all its interactive features—liking, commenting, sharing—establishes a community based on approval. Naturally, users curate their own image to gain the approval of others.

“There’s a way in which people may be treating themselves as objects or commodities,” Keel says. “Essentially, they’re objectifying themselves just as people objectify models or women in magazines, on TV, and in movies.”

There are, of course, ways to use Facebook that don’t encourage strict adherence to the thin ideal and disordered eating. Keel suggests spending less time on Facebook because of the correlation between time on the site and greater eating pathology. “It’s a small association, but it’s there,” she says. “Monitor your time on Facebook and don’t let it replace real face-to-face interactions with your peers.” Keel also suggests users could also benefit from focusing less on counting likes and comments on their posts.

Offline, she emphasizes, it's important to end “fat talk,” the contagious body-critiquing conversation between women.

“It’s this horrible, vicious cycle,” she says. “It’s just a vortex of self-doubt that people could really opt out of; and there are ways to pull out of it.” The first step is to recognize what fat talk is: “I look so fat in this photo.” “This picture makes me look enormous.” The second step is to refuse to engage in it, which means refusing to respond with a competing comment: “No, I look disgusting.” Or a compliment that validates the statement: “No you don’t, you are so skinny!” And the third step is to challenge fat-talking peers with statements that show you won’t support that sort of conversation: “I don’t see a size when I look at you. I see an accomplished, intellectual woman.”

“There are data that suggest that when people speak positively about themselves, it actually makes other people think positively about themselves,” Keel says. “If people are just willing to say something good, then other people will follow suit.”

But when you’re spreading the love with positive comments, compliment your Facebook friends on aspects other than their physical appearance. Comments such as, “You’re so thin” can be similarly detrimental. “Will her life accomplishment really depend on her weight? I hope not,” Keel says.

Samantha Rosenblum is a former PT editorial intern.

 

Photo credit: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

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