Instagram vs reality: The perils of social media on body image 

WATCH: Those who have lived through eating disorders share their personal experiences of their battles and discuss how social media has played a role on how they look at their own body.

Liz Rozman’s struggle with body image started when she was around 12.

During high school she suffered through an undiagnosed and untreated eating disorder that later transformed into an unhealthy obsession with fitness, over-exercising and dieting.

“I fell into many years, over a decade, of that false sense of wellness for myself, where I would just put my body through torture to look a certain way to look good for a certain day or to feel like if I lost X amount of pounds, I would feel happy,” the 30-year-old business owner from Ottawa told Global News.

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Overwhelmed by the flood of information on social media and amid a fear of missing out, she put her body through all kinds of diets and workout plans in her 20s.

Rozman manipulated photos by using body contouring apps and filters on Instagram to slim her face, give herself bigger lips or a more narrow and pointed nose.

Liz Rozman used filters and apps when posting photos because she was "scared to show up" as herself

Liz Rozman used filters and apps when posting photos because she was "scared to show up" as herself

Photo supplied by Liz Rozman

She didn’t feel she looked  “good enough.” That feeling took a toll on her mentally and physically, she says.

“I would go for weeks feeling like I was worthless, basically because of what I looked like. So I definitely had a low.”

Rozman is not alone in feeling this way.

To a certain degree, the damaging effect social media can have — particularly on young people — is nothing new. But in the decades since the introduction of MySpace and the eventual rise of Facebook and Instagram, there are indications it’s getting worse.

A recent deep dive into Facebook’s operations by the Wall Street Journal revealed the company is aware of its platforms’ negative influences on the mental health of users — a sizable percentage of those being young ones.

Despite the negative effects coming into clearer focus, the entrenchment of social media in the day-to-day lives of Canadians is nearly inescapable. Global News is unravelling the many facets of influence these platforms have — both offline and on — and the leverage it has on the body image of young girls is just one piece of the puzzle.

Kenzie Brenna from Vancouver has had her own insecurities that stemmed from bullying and body shaming at school.

As a kid, she suffered from emotional eating that transitioned to restrictive eating and dieting in her teenage years.

Kenzie Brenna started her Instagram page five years ago as a weight loss accountability account. It has transitioned into a space for promoting body positivity.

Kenzie Brenna started her Instagram page five years ago as a weight loss accountability account. It has transitioned into a space for promoting body positivity.

Photo credit: Alicia Thurston

While she was struggling, she didn’t feel comfortable posting her photos on social media. So, she would end up using a lot of emojis to cover herself up or avoid posting them completely.

“I was definitely very insecure about posting photos of my body,” the 31-year-old content creator and podcaster said.

Jeffrey Sotto of Toronto, now 41, didn’t use social media much until he was in his mid-30s, trying to recover from an eating disorder.

Gay men he saw on social media fit into one of two physical types, he said: bulky and muscled, or extremely thin. He was neither.

“When I first got onto Instagram, I was following a lot of gay lifestyle pages and all the images that they would be showing would just be of these crazy, crazy good-looking guys,” he said. “And it’s just like, how do they look like this? And just thinking to myself, I really, really don’t fit in and I don’t identify with anybody on social media.”

The hardest part though, he said, wasn’t the models or “influencers” he saw who looked physically perfect — he was used to that from advertising and other media — but instead, seeing ordinary people, his peers and sometimes his friends, who seemed to have the perfect body and the perfect life.

“Social media has a way of making it seem like it’s attainable because it’s ‘regular people’ like your friends. But really, it’s not because those images sometimes are not even real,” he said.

There is a growing body of research that shows how being on social media can worsen people’s mental health, mood and body image.

A 2019 peer-reviewed study by York University researchers published in the Body Image journal showed that young adult women who actively engaged with the social media of attractive peers experienced worsened body image.

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Meanwhile, a Statistics Canada study released in March 2021, found up to 14 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 64 reported feeling anxious or depressed, frustrated or angry, or envious of the lives of others as result of social media use.

Such feelings were more prevalent among younger Canadians aged 15 to 34, according to StatCan.

And according to internal documents first reported by the Wall Street Journal, Facebook’s own research found that Instagram, which it owns, made body issues worse for about one in three teen girls.

Facebook defended itself, saying the WSJ articles contained “deliberate mischaracterizations” and falsified the company’s motives.

In a statement to Global News, Meta — which owns Facebook — said it wants its platforms to be a “supportive and safe place for young people”.

“For years, Meta has done extensive work in bullying, suicide and self-injury, and eating disorder prevention and we will continue to look for opportunities to consult with experts and build new features and resources that help people who are struggling with negative social comparison or body image issues,” Lisa Laventure, the head of communications for Meta in Canada, said.

Experts, however, are concerned.

Dr. Jennifer Mills, a psychologist at York University, who has been researching and publishing studies on this topic for the past several years, is confident social media is a contributor to body dissatisfaction, particularly among teenage girls and young women.

While some people have better self-esteem, confidence and coping skills, those with perfectionist tendencies are more at risk, Mills told Global News.

“People who are perfectionistic, specifically about their appearance or about their weight and shape, those individuals would have a harder time being on social media and .. feeling like they’re not … measuring up in some way.”

Kaitlyn Axelrod, an outreach coordinator with Sheena’s Place, a Toronto-based eating disorder support group, said that social media’s participatory nature makes its impact different than a magazine ad, or a movie.

“Not only are they consuming what’s around them, but they are also a part of it,” she said. “So are they getting likes or comments on what they post? How does what they post compare to what other people are posting?”

People also interpret posts on social media differently than traditional media, Axelrod said.

“With social media, it’s very sneaky because especially with Instagram and Tik Tok, these apps that are meant to capture what’s going on in the life of someone, they can make people think that other people’s lives look a certain way,” she said. “And then that can cause comparisons that are even more damaging than if someone just sees a model or someone who they find really attractive on TV.”

With her mental health having hit rock bottom, Rozman decided to turn her life around during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She used the time during lockdown to research, reset and start listening to her body and sharing that journey with others on Instagram.

As a “micro influencer,” which typically refers to social media content creators with between 1,000 and 100,000 followers, Rozman is trying to promote body acceptance through her Instagram posts that present a more human and real depiction of herself, she says.

After years of using body contouring apps, Liz Rozman says she deleted them all during the COVID-19 pandemic

After years of using body contouring apps, Liz Rozman says she deleted them all during the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo supplied by Liz Rozman

Having deleted all the body contouring apps from her phone, she is now unafraid of posting unfiltered zoomed-in photos that highlight her belly rolls, cellulite and skin breakouts for her more than 3,000 followers.

“I just want to make people feel comfortable within themselves so they don’t feel the need to edit and make the mistakes that I made,” Rozman said.

When Ary Maharaj, an outreach and education coordinator with the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) speaks to young people, he urges them to consider not just how someone manipulated their image — by posing in a certain way or sucking in their stomach — but also why that person felt they had to do that.

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“Often when I get to ask that they are able to answer in heartwarming ways, like maybe this is a person who feels sad about the body that they’re in, or maybe they have people in their life worth commenting negatively about one body, so they’re deciding to change how it looks,” he said.

“Or maybe there are people who are feeling like their body is what’s most important, and so if their body doesn’t look a certain way, they have nothing else to them.”

Some women are attempting to counter the toxic environment of body perfectionism by promoting self-love, diversity and positivity on social media platforms.

Brittnee Blair, a 32-year-old plus-size Black model from Toronto, is among them.

She says not having social media during her childhood years was both good and bad.

On the one hand, the school bullies didn’t follow her home, but on the flip side, she says it would have been amazing to be able to connect with others who looked like her and she could relate to.

Brittnee Blair says she was fortunate to miss the Instagram era growing up during her middle school years when children are at a really vulnerable and impressionable age

Brittnee Blair says she was fortunate to miss the Instagram era growing up during her middle school years when children are at a really vulnerable and impressionable age

Photo credit: Bryan Whitely

On her Instagram account, which has 50,000 followers, the part-time TV host describes herself as “Miss Curvy B”, sharing what she says are “genuine and authentic” moments and “being unapologetically” herself.

While most of the feedback from her followers has been positive, Blair has also had her fair share of pushback and online trolls, for which she has set boundaries by either blocking accounts or certain words.

“Life is too short to be worried about what other people think,” said Blair.

While accounts like Blair’s and Rozman’s can have a positive impact on people’s social media experience, Mills said people who are already feeling good about their bodies may be the ones actually turning to them.

Her concern is that people who need it most aren’t accessing or drawn to such content that promotes body positivity.

“Unfortunately, they’re drawn to the other direction — the extreme thinness or extreme dieting content that is available on social media,” she said.

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Sometimes, Sotto said, that content can arrive even when he actively tries to avoid it by following body positive posters.

“I don’t know if this is a conscious thing or if this is something within the algorithms, but because I follow body positive pages, then the ads come in for weight loss,” he said. “This is so messed up. This is so badly messed up.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SERIES - DO NOT USE

Jeffrey Sotto is the author of Cloud Cover, a novel that follows the journey of a gay man struggling with grief and mental health issues centered around his body image

Photo supplied by Jeffrey Sotto

Ella Van Beers, a 25-year-old grad student who grew up in Toronto, said that the Instagram algorithm showed her posts about dieting without her going looking for them, even as she was in the middle of a relapse of her eating disorder.

“It feeds things to you that it knows you like,” she said. “A year ago on my explore page on Instagram I was constantly getting, ‘These are ways to trim calories from your diet’ and ‘These are 10 simple exercises to burn fat.’ Everything on my explore page was related to diet and weight loss.”

In her testimony to British lawmakers last October, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said the social media giant amplifies online hate, adding algorithms that prioritize engagement take people with mainstream interests and push them to the extremes.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users or that pushes divisive content, saying a false picture is being painted. But he does agree on the need for updated internet regulations, saying lawmakers are best able to assess the tradeoffs.

Who you choose to follow can play a major role in how you will end up feeling after a scroll session on Instagram or TikTok, Rozman said.

She advised unfollowing accounts that make you feel less important or beautiful and deleting apps like facetune which can tempt you to manipulate your photos.

“I do Instagram audits for myself many times a year and just unfollow any accounts that I know impact me negatively,” Rozman said.

Maharaj calls this “harm reduction” — a term usually used in reference to drug addiction or HIV prevention.

“I think we have to come to the reality that social media is going to be a part of these people’s lives in some way, shape or form,” he said.

“But how do we work with them to make changes that they feel like they can make?”

Using tools to block offensive words can help create a safer environment, said Blair.

“I think it’s really important to make sure that you protect yourself on any platform that you’re in and you create that environment.

If you experience symptoms of disordered eating, chronic dieting, body dissatisfaction or body dysmorphia, then seek professional help, Mills said.

Mood-related symptoms of high anxiety and depression that start interfering with your life should also be taken seriously and dealt with by a therapist, she added.

Axelrod argues that it shouldn’t just be up to individuals to protect themselves from the negative effects of social media.

“Facebook or Meta, TikTok, what is their responsibility in all of this if their product is causing harm? I think we focus a lot on what the consumer can do to prevent harm but it also places all the responsibility on them,” she said.

Maharaj agrees, saying you shouldn’t just be “at the mercy of your algorithm.”

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Facebook says it will continue to invest in research to address complex issues related to algorithmic distribution and the well-being of teens.

“I wish there were easy answers to these issues, and that choices we might make wouldn’t come with difficult trade-offs,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs wrote in a blog post.

Research so far suggests that disclaimers warning that a given photo was altered or edited — something that Norway has recently put into law — don’t have much of an effect on how people react to the image or how they feel after seeing it.

Maharaj thinks it would be more helpful for weight loss content to simply be banned from social media, though he admits he isn’t sure what that would look like in practice.

Van Beers thinks it would be helpful to have a way to “crack out of your rabbit hole” on a given app, maybe by showing what other people in your city are interested in, so your feed isn’t always on the same topic.

“Companies have responsibilities just like how media advertisements on newspapers and such have responsibilities on the content that they print,” he said.

“And I think there’s evidence that content focused on weight loss-related products and that are trying to profit off of people feeling bad about themselves are harmful to people’s mental health.”

If you or a loved one is suffering from disordered eating, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre offers an online chat and toll-free helpline (1-866-633-4220) to help connect people with support.

— with files from the Associated Press 

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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