I was fifteen years old, at the peak of my dance career, and a friend of mine threw a party for our performing group. We were celebrating our invitation to Germany, to participate in a showcase that included some of the world’s most elite dancers. We downed pizza, cake, soda, chips and dip late into the night, while snapping pictures of each other every thirty seconds. MySpace was just coming into its own, and we all had online photo albums to fill.
The day following the party, when we had all slept off the sugar and caffeine, the uploading began. I scrolled through picture after picture, reliving and enjoying the emotional highs of the previous night, until I came across one rather unflattering picture of myself. I was sitting on a couch, surrounded by friends so close, I considered them sisters. It was a wonderful, happy picture, that should have made me smile, but all I could see in it was my very round-looking face, my thick arms, my double chin, and a muffin top over my jeans.
I remember thinking, Am I really that fat? Is that what everyone sees when they look at me?
It was a devastating realization for a high school sophomore. I started spending hours in front of the mirror, pinching parts of myself I considered chubby, imagining how I’d be happy, if only I could lose those inches. I began obsessing over photographs of celebrities, writing down things “J-Lo’s butt,” or “Fergie’s abs,” setting goals as to how I wanted my body to look. And I wasn’t alone in my obsession.
Quickly, the topic of conversation between myself and my dance friends changed. We went from gossiping about boys and complaining about homework, to criticizing our own figures in pictures of ourselves that ended up on the internet. When Facebook came along, and tagging yourself and your friends in your photos became an option, the stakes became even higher. The pressure was suddenly on to look nothing less than camera-ready, every time we walked out the door.
The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt conducted a study of the correlation between Facebook and the dissatisfaction its users feel with their bodies. The results were alarming, and in most instances, very sad.
As Facebook feeds fill with pictures of female friends in cute bikinis, brags of, “Ran eight miles this morning. Feeling awesome today!” and gripes of, “I’ve gotta lose this baby weight…the diet starts tomorrow!” it’s hard to avoid the bad body image triggers, and with the ability to tag yourself and your friends in any status or photo, at any location, it’s even harder not to compare yourself to those you’re tagged with.
I found a little relief from this pressure after my son was born in 2010. Suddenly, there was someone in my life who needed my careful attention more than the love handles and thick thighs I had been so preoccupied with for the last five years. That’s absolutely not to say that I don’t still compare myself to my friends who have never been pregnant and wish I could look like them in a bathing suit, but I do find I go a little easier on myself now that I’m a mother. Unfortunately, though, studies would suggest that I’m in the minority in my feeling, and that breaks my heart. The way we feel about ourselves shouldn’t be the result of endless friend-to-friend comparisons of pictures and status updates. Nobody should feel that, because her profile picture isn’t as impressive as her friend’s, that she is any less beautiful or desirable.
So how do we overcome this epidemic of unhealthy comparisons and self-criticism? Obviously Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going to disable photo tagging just because it makes thousands of people feel bad about their bodies, and the general Facebook population isn’t going to stop the bikini photos, the fitness boasting, or the diet complaining. That means it falls to us, the users. We can choose to detach ourselves from social media entirely. We can hide updates from the worst photo and status offenders. But I’m a social media junkie, and a nosy one to boot, so neither of those options appeal to me. I’d like to think that if we overhaul of our way of thinking as it pertains to the Facebook-body image correlation, we can overcome the tremendous media- and self-imposed pressure to look or be perceived as better than our Facebook peers. Social media won’t change to make us feel better about ourselves, which is an ugly truth (no pun intended), but a truth nonetheless.
It’s time to change the way we think about our bodies. Ignore the pictures and forget the status updates, because you can’t control them. You can control the way you think, so repeat after me:
Healthy is beautiful. Strong is beautiful. Confident is beautiful. And forget Facebook, because I am beautiful.