Friend or foe: Is social media actually harmful?

Image via Yahoo Canada.

Introducing EveryBody, a series by Yahoo Canada highlighting the people and organizations working to end weight stigma, promote size inclusivity and prove that everybody and every body has value.

Whenever I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I make a mental list of things I miss about living in a time before social media. Now that I’m in my early 30s, I’m one of the last generations to recall a world before Zuckerberg and his hoodie struck it rich, before MySpace introduced a hierarchy of friendships or the excitement (and pressure) of choosing the perfect song lyrics for your MSN screen name. I miss the oh-so simple days of calling friends on a landline, the ear-piercing cacophony of dial-up internet and perhaps most of all, the blissful ignorance of living without my phone attached to my hand.

When it came time to brainstorm ideas for a series for Yahoo Canada, my own personal social media fatigue influenced my interest in examining the impact of social media on mental health. Tired of #fitspiration and influencer culture, I was all too quick to blame apps like Instagram and SnapChat for feelings of depression and body dissatisfaction.

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I narrowed my focus specifically towards social media’s focus on appearance, eager to explore the connection between social media use and negative body image. Although I did find several studies that link engagement on Instagram and Facebook to increased reports of body dissatisfaction, self-comparison and feelings of inadequacy, the findings weren’t exactly surprising.

US Weekly- May 2, 2005. Image via US Weekly.

I can vividly recall a time where magazines instead of apps were the weapon of choice for beauty standards and the female cast of “Friends” were pointed to for inspiring eating disorders. There had always been negativity and negative feelings of self attached to media consumption, purposely to generate a multi-billion dollar diet and beauty industry.

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These myths about beauty and value were carried over into social media and amplified by the millions of users who adopted the ideas of “sex sells” and “thin is in” to create their own content. We used what we had internalized through years of media consumption to further engrain diet culture and female objectification into our cultural zeitgeist. The medium changed, but the message sadly stayed the same. We no longer had to buy magazines to see images manipulated with photoshop to sell an idea and recipe for happiness and self worth, we were doing it ourselves with every filtered selfie and face-tuned photo while companies continued to profit.

"The Biggest Loser" 2006. Image via Getty Images.

My vision for the series shifted when I began looking at how different the conversation and language surrounding beauty and weight is compared to when I was a teenager. In the early 2000s, magazines tracked celebrity weights on a weekly basis, plus size bodies had no place on the pages of magazines, in clothing stores or on television. The only larger bodies I saw where the “before” photos in weight loss ads or people hoping for a body transformation on “The Biggest Loser” or “Extreme Makeover.” Now, there are famous supermodels with larger bodies appearing on the cover of magazines, brands are held accountable when they use photoshop and although there is still not enough, we have made strides towards inclusion and body diversity in media.

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Jillian Michaels, "The Biggest Loser" 2008. Image via Getty Images.

Although there is evidence to suggest that social media contributes to feelings of body dissatisfaction, it is possible that because of social media, the cultural obsession with thinness has met its match with the rise of the body positivity movement.

When the power to drive trends and create content exchanged hands from traditional forms of media to social media platforms and users the people who felt excluded from beauty, fashion and fitness began to reclaim their own space online. Millions of people, hungry for authenticity and representation began forming communities online.

Tess Holliday. Image via Self.

The body positivity and fat acceptance movement gained traction as an antidote to diet culture and the narrow idea that thinness equaled beauty and that masculinity could be measured by muscle definition. Where we were once made to feel ostracized for not fitting into Victoria’s Secret standards, social media allowed people all over the world to connect with one another and create a refuge from toxic imagery and messaging that was designed to line corporate pockets.

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Influencer culture began including different bodies, races and gender identities. Support groups for people recovering from eating disorders, plus size fashion, Health At Every Size advocates emerged out of simply using social media as a solution to undo years of fatphobia and weight discrimination, and affected real change offline.

Recently, Instagram announced it would be enacting new policies to remove posts related to diet and weight-loss products and restrict any diet, weight-loss or cosmetic procedure content to users under 18.

Jameela Jamil. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Body positive activist and actress Jameela Jamil, who has been a vocal proponent of diet culture called the announcement a step forward for mental health and body positive advocates.

“This is a huge win for our ongoing fight against the diet/detox industry,” Jamil said. “Facebook and Instagram taking a stand to protect the physical and mental health of people online sends an important message out to the world.

“We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media,” noted Emma Collins, Instagram’s public policy manager.

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EveryBody focuses of the premise that social media is neither inherently good or bad, but a tool that can be used to offer either solutions or roadblocks to the overarching issue of diet culture and the belief that our happiness depends on our weight and appearance.

The series will highlight people and organizations working to promote inclusivity and redefine health as well as real people who are on their own personal journeys towards reclaiming their bodies and identities during the social media age. My hope is that the series will inspire and educate readers but ultimately connect us by celebrating the idea that everybody and every body has value.

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA! Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.