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Seeking social media 'likes' could cause increased dislike in body image

SALT LAKE CITY — Kelsey Braithwaite was hospitalized three times in junior high when her attempts to become “healthier” turned into a devastating eating disorder.

As a seventh-grader, Braithwaite said messages in the media made her believe that eating healthy meant eating less. Along with over-training as a runner, that's exactly what she did.

“This 'healthy' goal just got out of control really fast,” the 22-year-old Provo woman said.

After attending a treatment center at age 19, many of Braithwaite's disordered eating habits subsided. But she said the effects of social media "healthy living" posts have recently made feelings of hopelessness and comparison flare up again.

She's not the only one who believes such constant social media feeds can be damaging to women, particularly teenage girls. A study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine shows that women who consume greater amounts of social media have greater odds of developing an eating disorder.

Braithwaite and others believe one solution is for women and girls to simply limit their exposure to some social media.

The issue about body image spiked across the country earlier this month when actress Jennifer Aniston publicly shamed society's scrutiny of women through social media's "toxic messages." The celebrity, who said she avoids social media altogether, wrote a letter published by the Huffington Post saying she is "fed up" with the cultural standards women are held to in the virtual world, including what she called "sport-like scrutiny and body shaming."

“The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing,” she wrote.

Aniston said young girls are being conditioned to believe their worth only comes from being "incredibly thin" or looking like a "supermodel." She called on society, particularly celebrity tabloids, to see the world through a “more humanized lens.”

Dr. Nicole Hawkins, director of clinical services at Center for Change, an eating disorder recovery treatment center, said the majority of her patients frequently alter their photos using an airbrush or filters before they post them on social media to make themselves look even thinner than they actually are.

The girls then seek ratification, asking to be rated on their “hotness," “cuteness” or on a 10-point scale. Those who obsess over ratings like this tend to have more disordered eating, Hawkins said.

Many of Hawkins' patients say they often purposefully "follow" celebrities and others on social media whom they try to compete with, keeping them "motivated to lose weight, or to exercise more.”

Studies show that the more time women spend on Facebook each day, the more unsatisfied they will be with their bodies and the more likely they are to have disordered eating, Hawkins said. Those Facebook fanatics also tend to “self-objectify” themselves more, she added.

“Being on social media — being on Facebook — makes people insecure,” Hawkins said. Lengthy social media scrolling can “feed the illness" of eating disorders.

“If you’re already feeling vulnerable and not good enough, there’s plenty of things on social media that you can find that will make you feel worse,” she said.

Hawkins warns not to get caught up in “the ‘social crisis’ of dieting that is rampant in society right now.”

A 2014 study by the University of South Florida showed that posts about "healthy living" may also be problematic for readers, like Braithwaite, who already have issues with eating and body image.

The study showed that authors of 21 award-winning “healthy living” blogs were affected personally by disordered eating. Eleven of the blogs included some form of negative or "guilt-inducing" messages relating to food.

Some blogs promoting “clean eating” or “raw eating” can lead viewers into self-hatred, according to Hawkins.

And blogs aren't the only places where overly intensive "healthy" messages are posted. Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter updates flood the phones of teenage girls, who often don't go a moment without constantly checking for updates.

Posts about "the best workout for bikini abs" or "the benefits of the no-carb diet" constantly find their way to the top of Instagram and Pinterest search feeds.

Braithwaite said she has seen how excessive weight loss posts on social media sites can be extremely hurtful, especially for those already struggling with body image and eating disorders.

“Social media is just making it all worse,” she said.

When her friends post about “clean eating” or how much weight they’re losing, Braithwaite said she chooses to “unfollow” them to help her avoid the obsession of comparing herself to other people.

A favorite anonymous quote she often says to herself is: "Comparing is the thief of joy."

Dr. Wendy Hoyt, a licensed psychologist, said social media makes it hard for users to get away from the “diet messages” that pervade the internet with workout regimes and diets.

Oftentimes it is even the “friends” of social media users who are the ones promoting their latest workout, what food they avoided that day or their “before and after” pictures.

“It’s a constant barrage of diet/weight loss information,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt recommends limiting social media contacts with those who post about diet and weight loss in order to decrease exposure to what can be the same repetitious, damaging messages.

Amber Purser, 26, of Provo, battled anorexia for over 10 years. She said she still struggles daily to change her thought process and watch out for herself when using social media. If she “follows” someone on Facebook or Pinterest whose posts trigger negative thoughts, she chooses to “unfollow” or “block” them.

“No one can decide what’s beautiful and what’s not,” she said. “I don’t feel like it's anyone else’s decision. You have to decide for yourself what’s beautiful.”

Purser finds her beauty in her actions and how she treats others.

“It doesn’t really matter what is on the outside. It's more what’s on the inside,” she said.

Hawkins encourages women to find attributes and qualities they like about themselves, and to focus less on the numbers on the scale.

“Stop comparing to other people and recognize your own value and your own worth outside of your body,” she said. “Realize your appearance is just one component of who you are.”

For more information on eating disorders or to find help, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org, or call the National Eating Disorder Association at 1-800-931-2237.

Email: ahobbs@deseretnews.com