More than ever, the average person is bombarded with images of superhuman-looking celebrities and models displaying the standards of health and beauty that we’re supposed to live up to. With the integration of social media into our everyday lives, those “standards” are difficult to ignore. And now, with easy-to-use photo editing apps, even our co-workers and cousins look on par with movie stars.
So what is this teaching us? How are our minds and hearts being conditioned? If everyone is striving to portray themselves as flawless, then how is that making people with flaws (everyone) feel?
Thankfully, some prominent people, such as actress and activist Jameela Jamil, are starting to fight back and encourage a more realistic view of bodies. Experts like Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine’s Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, applauds the message and says it needs to grow.
Fighting the Good Fight
Jamil is known for her role as Tahani on the NBC show The Good Place, but her career in entertainment started before that in England. She says she has dealt with societal pressures to look a certain way and suffered an eating disorder because of it. Now healthy and strong, she is fighting for a society in which people of all shapes and sizes can feel happy with themselves.
Jamil is quickly gaining traction with her Instagram account @i_weigh, which urges people to think of themselves as more than a number on a scale. The account posts submissions from followers of unedited selfies with text describing themselves. The idea is that their value “weighs” more than a number, whether it be friend, dog lover or PhD. The result has been a flourishing, supportive community that embraces members for who they are, earning approval from clinicians like Dr. Zerwas.
“By sharing her own story and struggles, Jameela is letting people know that recovery is possible,” Dr. Zerwas says. “She’s also pointing out the parts of our society that contribute to low self-confidence, unrealistic expectations and eating disorders.”
Dr. Zerwas says that on top of the usual advertising, TV shows and movies we view, the average social media feed is a minefield that we should navigate carefully for our own mental and physical health.
Navigating the Social Media Minefield
We already know photos in magazines and on billboards are heavily edited. But a lot of people don’t realize that most photos on social media, especially Instagram, have been edited too, using filters, editing tools or both. If you don’t consider the editing that goes into social media posts, it can seem like some pretty high standards to meet.
“I think we all kind of have body dysmorphia these days, obsessively focusing on a perceived flaw in our appearance,” Dr. Zerwas says. “It’s because we look at so many images of women’s bodies that have been photoshopped somehow. It makes people strive for something that isn’t real.”
Dr. Zerwas says that obsession is usually followed by an “if, then” line of thinking: If you just lose 10 pounds, then you’ll be happier or find a partner or get a promotion. But that’s almost never the case, Dr. Zerwas says, and the fixation is unlikely to end. Weight loss is especially dangerous territory.
“People want a quick fix when it comes to shedding pounds and inches,” Dr. Zerwas says. “The notion of eating healthy foods in moderation and being patient and loving with yourself at all different body sizes, which is the only approach I would suggest, doesn’t have a good ring to it.”
That’s where diet fads and products come into play. Multiple celebrities have recently endorsed diet supplements that the Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated, which Dr. Zerwas calls a dangerous trend. Jamil has made a point to call these celebrities out.
“Jameela is pointing out things about what we assume is OK behavior but actually isn’t,” Dr. Zerwas says. “For example, some celebrities are hawking weight-loss products that are essentially laxatives. And most likely they did not use those products to achieve their appearance. The products take a toll on your body and your mind, and that isn’t talked about.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Zerwas adds, marketing and advertising have conflated “healthy” and “skinny.” In reality, the number on the scale or on your clothing tag is not a true indication of your internal wellness, physical fitness or mental health.
The Human Toll of Unrealistic Expectations
The barrage of perfection we experience online and on TV every day is exacerbated by our ability to use apps to count every step we take and every calorie that passes our lips. Young people, even children, are especially vulnerable.
“One out of 5 college students will struggle with some form of disordered eating like risky diets,” Dr. Zerwas says. “On top of that, in our clinics we are seeing more and more patients come to us who are between the ages of 8 to 10 years old. It is tremendously upsetting to see kids that young who are worried about getting fat and have cut out all sugar because they don’t think they will be loved if they don’t look a certain way.”
It’s important to understand that anyone can struggle with an eating disorder, which means more than simply anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder, Dr. Zerwas says. An eating disorder is characterized as abnormal or disturbed eating habits, and it can affect people of any age, size, shape, color or sex.
Warning signs of these disorders can vary by person but can include preoccupation with weight, refusal to eat certain foods, skipping meals and excessive mood swings. If some of these symptoms don’t seem that concerning, Dr. Zerwas says that’s an indication of how society has normalized poor eating habits and harmful relationships with our bodies.
“There’s a larger trend of objectifying humans. Humans become branded and marketed and ultimately dehumanized,” Dr. Zerwas says. “This can lead people to quantify themselves by the number of likes and comments they have online, which can make people feel like they aren’t measuring up. That can cause anxiety and depression.”
Learning to Be Kind to Yourself
From Dr. Zerwas’ viewpoint, an ideal New Year’s resolution would be to show yourself compassion. You can start doing this by keeping track of how you feel after watching TV or perusing social media. If you feel down on yourself or find that your news feed triggers certain behaviors, it’s time to stop looking.
If you don’t want to completely break up with social media, find new people and things to follow. Accounts like @i_weigh are part of a larger cultural trend to provide positive forces for people fed up with being told they aren’t good enough.
“There is a large movement in the eating disorder space, the feminist space and with people who are concerned about child development,” Dr. Zerwas says. “They are starting to have some meaningful conversations on the topic of loving yourself, or at least being neutral about yourself.”
Being neutral about your appearance is often more achievable than always having a positive attitude, Dr. Zerwas says. It’s not about always being thrilled with your body, but instead being at peace with it and not ashamed.
To do this, Dr. Zerwas recommends finding fun activities and hobbies that get you moving and provide an outlet for your body that isn’t about looks. Focus on living moderately and nourishing your whole health—mental, emotional and physical. Think about the impact you may be having on others, and try to set a good example.
People with a family history of eating disorders, or a personal history of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, might be more susceptible to developing an eating disorder. If you have noticed concerning behaviors about yourself or a loved one, seek help from a professional. No one needs to suffer alone.
Visit the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders to learn more about treatment.