What Students Are Saying About How Social Media Affects Their Body Image – The New York Times

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current events conversation
A recent article put a spotlight on how social media can fuel body dysmorphia in boys. We asked teenagers how these apps make them feel about the way they look.
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Please note: This post is part of The Learning Network’s ongoing Current Events Conversation feature in which we invite students to react to the news via our daily writing prompts and publish a selection of their comments each week.
In “What Is ‘Bigorexia’?” Alex Hawgood reports on a social media landscape dominated by muscle-building content and fitness influencers, and how it affects the way increasing numbers of teenage boys feel about their own bodies.
As we regularly do when The Times writes about an issue that touches the lives of young people, we used our daily Student Opinion forum to ask teenagers to share their perspectives on social media and body image.
Many students said that social media has been “detrimental” to the way they feel about their looks, and that even though they are aware it doesn’t show the full picture, they still struggle not to compare themselves to the people they see online. They grappled, too, with the heart of the article: male body image issues and why boys and men might have a harder time talking about them. And others shared that sometimes social media can be a positive influence on their health, motivating them to make changes or just accept their bodies the way they are.
Thank you to all those from around the world who joined the conversation this week, including teenagers from Great Neck, N.Y.; Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas; and Taiwan.
Please note: Student comments have been lightly edited for length, but otherwise appear as they were originally submitted.
_________
Social media greatly affects my body image. There are beautiful people online, and with TikTok’s “that girl” or “small waist” trends, I wonder why I can’t have the same flat, toned stomach or the same tiny, hourglass waist despite all the exercising and healthy eating I do. Recently I have been feeling bad about my appearance, fully knowing that I have a healthy body and that I should be grateful to have a body that other girls want.
This leads me to another question, about the line between fit and fanatical. I have seen weight loss videos that make no physical sense, and I know girls take unreasonable measures to achieve their goals. But even knowing that it can be unhealthy, I can’t help but ask myself if just a little overexercising or a little starvation could pay off.
Katie, Great Neck, NY
Growing up with social media in this day and age is absolutely detrimental to one’s self esteem and view of their own body. There are hundreds of influencers that are praised for having the perfect body when chances are, it’s completely edited. Which gives off the impression that you can’t feel comfortable in your skin without using FaceTune. Beyond that, for those who are blind to the amount of editing being done, are put under the impression that if you aren’t “perfectly” skinny or your stomach isn’t toned and flat then you aren’t beautiful. I have struggled with body confidence and I find myself deleting Instagram whenever it gets too bad because I am subconsciously wishing I looked like the girls on my feed.
Sarah, Wheaton
From time to time, I scroll and scroll and subtly wish I had the charm and charisma, and in rare cases the body types of other men. Now, I do not have the most buff body type, justifying my common thought process … For example, in a post that blew up, people commented on any negative detail they could find about me. Some commented on my lanky, lean stature, which led to insecure thoughts. I thought I had to “appear” stronger so I would not have been made fun of.
Alain, Valley Stream
Influencers share their “what I eat in a day” videos, and while their intentions may not be malicious, comparison truly becomes the thief of joy. You start wondering about how much you should be eating. Are you over-consuming? Are you eating too much sugar? Should you be eating after eight pm? Is this cookie worth it when, like they say, “summer is just around the corner?” While I admit that I have benefited from some nutritional information that has been taught by professionals on apps like TikTok and Instagram, the perpetuation of unrealistic beauty standards has been overwhelmingly detrimental for me.
Ava, Los Angeles
I’ve been battling anorexia for almost two years, but I’ve been hateful towards my body since at least 2016. I still have marks from where my 3rd-grade self scratched the measurements of my waist and hips in pencil on my bathroom door. Back then, I was watching the YouTubers of the mid-2010s, who looked effortlessly flawless showing their midriffs in halter tops and mini skirts, when I could never feel confident wearing the same things, despite being slender.
During the pandemic, I increased my consumption of social media and began to feel “inspired” by all the ultrathin supermodels and heroin-chic movie stars of the 90s and 00s that were glorified by nostalgic Instagram pages. My explore page was tuned to my sudden interest in 1200-calorie meal plans and Victoria’s Secret ab workouts. Every time I opened Instagram, I was motivated to cut my portion sizes and to exercise even more. I felt proud of the sudden protrusion of my collarbones and ribs, the smallness of my wrists, the sharpness of my jawline. What I didn’t know is that I was slipping down a very steep slope, altering my brain and rendering myself potentially infertile.
Mr. Hawgood’s quote, “The line between getting fit and fanatical is not always clear,” is incredibly true. At some point, I crossed that line, but I couldn’t tell you when or where. All I know is that being thin became an obsession, and my relationship with food and exercise hasn’t been the same since 2020.
LB, Hoggard High School, Wilmington NC
When I was in fifth grade I got Instagram and at first I was obsessed … It was all so new, but eventually I realized there was “no harm.” I regret thinking that. I would follow all the celebrities my friends did and it started to make me look at them differently. I would look at where they were and what they were wearing and compare it to my life. I started to feel inadequate about the way I dressed and looked …
Eventually, I couldn’t stand the unhappiness of it all and I deleted the app. At first it felt weird. I would turn my phone to check it and nothing was there, in the end I forgot about it and I am better because of it. Social media makes you feel like you are less than you are.
Laura, J.R. Masterman Philadelphia PA
Social media does affect the way I see my body. As someone who struggles with gender dysphoria, it can be difficult to see others online who I think look better than me. For a few years now, I found out that I’m transgender. Unfortunately, until I’m old enough to start my transition, I look very feminine. I want to appear more masculine, but for now there isn’t much I can do. The ability to see so many people online, in this case, other trans people who pass more than I do or seem to have a better transition than me, can be really frustrating …
I do still struggle with my dysphoria, and I still sometimes struggle with making comparisons. But social media has also given me a place of comfort, knowing that others struggle and relate like I do and that I’m not alone in this experience.
Ashton, HHHS
_________
I believe that there is a significant gap when talking about female’s body images versus male’s. Not only in social media but also in real world connections, males are taught differently than girls about how to think about their struggles and insecurities. People seem to notice the struggles female’s face when it comes to body image issues, but it is all too common for them to overlook the struggles that males face. Society directly talks about the negative effects of social media on female’s body images, but talks around male’s. They are often discouraged to share their struggles and sometimes even ignored when attempting to share.
Devynne, Comets
I feel that oftentimes men are discouraged from sharing about the struggles or insecurities they may face in relation to their bodies. Unfortunately, I think society has pinned body image issues as more of a “women’s issue,” which is inaccurate. All individuals, regardless of gender, can suffer with body image issues. I think it’s important that there are safe spaces for men to discuss their own personal struggles with body image insecurities. When we help all people, not just those identifying as female, with their body image issues, society as a whole improves as it becomes more accepting of all individuals and their respective struggles.
Sam, Valley Stream North
It is very frustrating that there still exists a negative stigma around males suffering from eating disorders and body dysmorphia. It is alarmingly common that males begin to feel a consuming, self-destructive pressure to become “jacked” from a young age. I see my own friends taking creatine, feeling guilty for not getting their daily “pump,” and force-feeding themselves obscene amounts of protein. But they’re helpless — being male and vulnerable results in ridicule. This type of isolation and struggle will ruin a person’s life and health …
Katharine, Long Island
_________
Before men were taught to hide how they felt because if they did they were considered less of a man. Now people want men to express how they feel but they are still ashamed for sharing their feelings, especially on social media because if they share too much they will be mocked for it by being told they’re acting like a little girl.
Edgar, John H Francis Polytechnic HS
I feel as if men are reluctant to share their insecurities related to their bodies due to the fact that they are afraid they won’t hear any positive reinforcement. Some males feel as if it is necessary to compete with one another and I think that if they do share their insecurities, it will hurt their “ego.” I think this is all part of a more prominent issue, toxic masculinity, which makes people feel that they must be the protector and fit if they want to compete with others and succeed. Personally, I would not share my struggle with others because I don’t think my friends would care or give any positive reinforcement that would push me forwards.
Menash, New York
For men, there is often competition to be physically strong as well as emotionally strong. Social media images of “strong” men influence younger and younger boys who change their eating, exercise, and social habits. Although acceptance of men sharing feelings of insecurity has improved, society still expects men to be strong and not subject to such feelings or influences.
Kristina G., Miami Country Day School, FL
I feel that in a society that values qualities of strength, stability, and resiliency in men, a trend exists where they are discouraged from talking about emotions and struggles as a whole, but especially in sharing struggles or insecurities related to their bodies. Most males associate the sharing of emotions and hardships as a sign of weakness. Of vulnerability. Considering that body image and disorders are also highly associated with women and is rarely applied to men, I would believe that this would only further deter men from possibly speaking out about their issues. Men also tend to draw a connection between their physical attributes, such as height or muscular strength, directly to personal traits about themselves and other men. A man who is taller and has larger muscles is seen as more powerful and dominant, while a shorter man is regarded in an opposite manner. By admitting to issues with body image, I feel that men would see this as an equivalent to an emotional attack on their character which opens the door for what they feel are unwanted conversations and opinions.
Sasha, Great Neck, New York
_________
I find that I encounter more body positive content than negative. The reason for this though depends who you follow and surround yourself with, and I make sure to surround myself and follow those who encourage me instead of putting me down. When I see body positive content on social media I find that it just makes me fell normal for the body I have. Positive content can show people that your body doesn’t define you, and that you shouldn’t worry about having the smallest waist or biggest muscles. The thing it promotes most though is that if you want to get in shape and be healthier then the only person you should do it for is yourself.
Alexis, Hanover Horton High School
I have encountered body-positive videos on social media. I think it is very helpful to show people regular bodies and people who are happy in the body they are in. It makes me feel better and happier that people can see what everyday people look like. Not super models and not edited people.
Lila, J.R. Masterman in Philadelphia, PA
Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I have encountered a lot of body-positive content, though the majority of it is directed toward women. A big trend I’ve seen in body-positive messaging has been the rise of “anti-dieting,” or trying to undo the harm of unhealthy, dangerous restrictions people place on their eating. I want to believe these posts and find some sort of acceptance with what I eat on the daily, but it’s difficult for my mind not to default to worry or concern that others are eating less. Though these posts may be successful in changing some viewers’ opinions on what they eat and motivating them to consider food as a pleasure instead of a burden, they are dwarfed by the sheer quantity of workout posts dominating social media. So, while I think body-positive content on social media certainly helps a small amount of people, it’s probably not going to be enough to offset the damage done by the myriad posts on the supposed glamor of dieting, modeling, and strenuous exercise.
Jonathan, Great Neck, N.Y.
Some “body positive” influencers argue that showing their imperfections eliminates the damaging and unattainable standards for one’s body on social media and boosts self confidence of social media users. However, models and influencers continue to post perfected images of their bodies with no claims to photoshop or plastic surgery, still enforcing this impossible beauty standard on social media. These influencers might argue that if people with “imperfect” bodies are allowed to flaunt themselves on social media, why can’t they? Some even claim that the insecurities and body image issues some social media users face are not their problem, and they should still be allowed to share their bodies. My own opinion, is that these influencers do create a toxic environment on social media, and personally, I feel insecure after years of scrolling through social media and seeing the bodies of influencers and the praising comments that follow.
Charlotte, Glen Bard West
_________
Social Media does not negatively affect the way I feel about my body, nor has it made me feel bad about the way I look. Instead, looking at other males who have nice muscular bodies on social media motivates me to get stronger and more confident in myself since most males I see on social media encourage others to move forward with their lives and not dwell in the past.
One message on social media that I have received … is that I need my body to look healthy and jacked in my own eyes. This is good advice for teenagers since it projects to them that they should be the ones ultimately satisfied with their bodies while staying healthy …
Augustine, Valley Stream North
Sometimes when I scroll through Instagram or TikTok, I see influencers showing off their routines/diets for getting fit. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel bad about my body, instead it motivates me to push on and try to achieve the body I want. So far, my improvement has made me feel good both mentally and physically. I feel more energetic, confident and happy while also having a plus of being stronger.
Julian, Valley Stream
I am constantly scrolling through TikTok and Instagram and I often come across gym influencers. When I see them I become more inspired than self-conscious, it kind of serves as a reminder of what you can achieve if you work hard enough. Also, most fitness influencers try to bring up their followers. They post their workout routines and their diets to help their following better themselves …
I relate more to Bobby in his opinion on social media, he says “Those guys made me realize I wanted to get bodies like them and post stuff like them.” I agree with what he says about social media influencers being role models for those starting out going to the gym. They can provide necessary guidance for beginners in the gym as well as a model for what they want to achieve.
James, Hoggard High School in Wilmington, NC
Social media I think has a large impact on how people seem themselves, like explained in the article when seeing all those different people and how much better or popular they are makes some people want to change. That isn’t always a bad thing though because it could just be that one little push that could help someone become healthier ad better. To me it hasn’t made me feel bad or good about the way that I look, but definitely helped me with wanting to get into shape and be better overall.
Jameson, Syracuse, New York
Social media has not affected the way I feel about my body in any way. Yes, as I scroll through TikTok, I see many men and even teenagers with insane ripped physiques, but never have I felt anxious or inferior to them. I know that they excel in the area of bodybuilding and athletics, but I also know that I excel in different areas such as music and academics. I am proud to be who I am, but I would also like to be like those gym influencers since that would not hurt as it would only benefit me.
Bidipta, Valley Stream North
_________
I think it is important as a social media user to keep in mind that one’s account is only a glimpse in that person’s life, and for every good picture, there’s dozens of pictures that they do not like. It is a controlled platform and many use filters, photoshop, or other editing tools to their advantage. But then again, something I never quite understood with people arguing that social media is toxic for body image is that nobody is forcing you to use and scroll on that platform; it is everyone’s choice to download the app and pick who they follow. Don’t let what others look like get in your head. Do things for you and lift each other up. Same thing with working out. Make sure you take care of yourself first and foremost, and practice self love each step of the way.
Zoe, New York
Social media gives us a certain image of how a girl or guys body is supposed to look like and sometimes that image does get in our head. Personally sometimes I do think “oh why cant I look like that” but then you got to realize we’re just all different and sometimes that social media image is photoshopped or just not even real. …
Paulina, New Mexico
The key to successfully promoting exercise and healthy habits is to show balance: fitness TikTokers should equally promote the parts of their day where they have dessert, go out to dinner with their friends, and take days off. Vulnerable and insecure adolescents who see lifestyles purely focused on exercise and physique are doomed to fall into the trap of eating disorders and isolation.
Maya, Great Neck, New York
It is difficult to completely blame my poor body image on social media. In reality, it was there long before I downloaded Instagram or Snapchat. However, recently I have noticed myself spending longer and longer staring at random girls that pop up on my For You Page. The simple images of these strangers allows me to compare myself to them. Rather than focusing on my best traits, I focus on what I lack, such as long legs and blonde hair.
In some ways, it gets easier and easier to make these toxic comparisons, however what I often fail to realize is that I am seeing what people want me to see. Posts on social media are typically carefully planned photos that allow people to hide, what they deem, the worst parts of themselves. What is truly the most disturbing is the amount of time I spend tearing myself down based on people I do not know and most likely will never know. Social media in my hands is a rather dangerous entity because it allows me to see the worst parts of myself. Even when trying to escape from its horrid negativity, by bouncing from one app to the next, I am always surrounded by more reasons to feel inferior.
Grace, RI
In my case, social media has definitely affected the way I feel about myself and my body, due to the many unrealistic standards that are set on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. Users on these platforms usually post at times they feel and look their best, often neglecting their usual day-to-day appearances. Social media has caused me to feel as if I have to look a certain way at all times of the day, even though it is clear that 15-second TikTok clips of gorgeous users show just that: only 15 seconds of their day.
Nikita, New York
On social media, there are many posts disseminating negative messages. They tell you how you should eat, how many times you should exercise, how weight you should be, how tall you should be, and so on. In the end, I hope I can tell anyone who is caring about how you “should” look or having an appearance anxiety that: If you could be yourself, you are perfect.
Sira, Taiwan
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