Is social media impacting your body image?

In our quest for the perfect body image, we may be running the risk of developing eating disorders

By Ghenwa Yehia

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Published: Thu 8 Feb 2024, 7:19 PM

If you scroll through Aylish Rutherford’s social media pages, you’d never suspect that the 27-year-old founder of The Wellness Club was once plagued by negative body image.

Her Instagram feeds promote healthy lifestyle practices and self-acceptance and love, while optimising one’s health and well-being. She doesn’t shy away from showing what her own body looks like – from flexed and fabulous to the cellulite on her legs and a post-dinner tummy bloat.

“I haven’t always had good body image,” admitted the Dubai-based lifestyle coach. “I started my Instagram in around 2017, when I got into fitness, to control how my body looked. I liked the online validation that I got from it.

“My body image was at its worst when I was my smallest. I criticised every part of myself, I severely restricted my dietary intake, and I constantly compared myself to others on social media. And the smaller or fitter I got, the more likes and followers I seemed to have. It was stressful and lonely trying to maintain that perfect image for social media.”

While on her fitness journey, Aylish completed her Masters in Nutritional Sciences which sparked a series of mindset shifts leading to positive change.

“As I became more experienced in the gym and learned about nutrition, I started talking to a lot of girls on my Instagram about the shame and guilt around food, and pressures we all faced. Everyone had their own ebbs and flows in life and I realised I just wanted to help others avoid the negative experiences that I had along my journey.

“I wanted to break down the illusion of social media because I felt “not normal” when all I saw online was perfection. Working out to feel good is normal–wanting to be flawless is not.”

While Aylish herself did not suffer from a diagnosed eating disorder, it’s a slippery slope from negative body image to developing one.

Eating disorders (EDs) are serious and potentially fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people's eating behaviours and related thoughts and emotions.

Dr Victoria Mountford, Lead Psychologist and Eating Disorder Service Lead at Sage Clinics in Dubai, explains how EDs are often misunderstood and underdiagnosed.

“Eating disorders are considered mental health disorders because they have severe psychological, physical, and social consequences,” she explained. “They are associated with significant distress and impairment that can have huge psychological impact both in the short and long term–often leading to low mood, increased anxiety and irritability and feelings of guilt and shame. EDs can affect anybody, including men who are less likely to seek help and are often underdiagnosed. They can develop around the age of 10, possibly younger.”

While there isn’t any research specific to the UAE, a scoping review of disordered eating in the Middle East region found a relatively large proportion of adolescents and adults were classified as high risk of developing or having EDs. Studies from other Gulf countries have shown that increased social media use leads to disordered eating patterns, with Instagram use having the most significant association.

“Social media can promote unrealistic body portrayals, which can contribute to idealisation of the thin, increasing body image dissatisfaction. This may trigger dieting or other unhealthy weight loss practices,” she said. “Social comparison – whether online or in person – often leads to feelings of inadequacy and shame because we tend to engage in ‘upward’ comparison with those who seem in better shape.

“And as social media algorithms direct us to more and more extreme content, reinforcing unhelpful comparisons, we’re likely to spend less time doing things that positively reinforce our self-esteem and well-being – like spending time with family and friends or pursuing hobbies and interests.”

Those with EDs frequently become isolated and may self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts. In fact, EDs have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.

“The quicker we intervene, the better the outcomes. Left untreated, EDs become chronic and pervasive, destroying a person’s life,” warns Dr Victoria. “Therapy combines a focus on improving and regularising nutritional intake and understanding the psychological factors behind a person’s disorder. Some therapies also work directly with the family, if it’s determined that this can be helpful.”

Aylish is now proud that she’s no longer feeding into the problematic content popularised by fitness influencers. “On my Instagram, I’ve shared that I used to edit my photos and I’ve been honest that I’ve engaged in toxic comparison. I now post realistic content to show everyone how even that perfect influencer you love is not perfect – and that’s OK!

“This has cost me some engagement — Instagram is a highlight reel and typically the most polished content does do better. But I’ve seen how the quality of engagement has improved. It’s not just random ‘likes’ anymore. Girls will comment saying things like, ‘I was in such a mental rut this morning and reading this and seeing you, just makes me think of things in such a different way.’

“That’s the type of influence I’d rather have anyways.”

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