When Social Media Triggers Body Image Issues

September 22, 2019

It’s a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.

Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. “I’ll never look like that,” the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.

It’s no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. “Social media is just another trigger,” says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. “And dancers don’t need another trigger.” In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?

The science of why we feel bad

“Dancers can look at a bunch of other people’s profiles and get a really distorted view of what their reality is,” says Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal and dean of the Colburn School’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute in Los Angeles. “Then they apply it to themselves and feel terrible.”

That type of juxtaposition is what psychologists call upward social comparisons, says Charlotte Markey, professor of psychology at Rutgers University. “We’re looking at someone who appears better than us in some way,” she says. “The inevitable result is that we feel bad about ourselves and think we need to improve. The more of a fantasy image it is, the more likely the comparison will be far off, and we’ll feel that much worse.”

With so many apps and filters at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever to craft that fantasy photo, right from our phones—legs become longer and leaner, edges are softened and blurred, artful shadows create contour. Influencers often have professional photographers shooting them, meaning they’re working with ideal lighting, framing and composition. What we end up comparing ourselves to, then, isn’t an accurate view of reality.

What about when we post photos of our own, hoping to score likes and favorable comments? After all, says Ringer, “everybody puts their best image on social media.” According to Markey, that’s a common way to generate validation from others—and not really a healthy one.

“If you’re posting pictures of yourself, you wouldn’t post them unless you hoped people would respond favorably. It’s the modern-day equivalent of when someone says, ‘I’m so fat,’ and everyone else is supposed to say, ‘No, you aren’t!’ ” says Markey. “It’s that ‘reassure me’ thing that girls and women grow up doing. But there’s a lot of research to suggest that it’s really not helpful.” It promotes an obsession with appearance and superficiality, which in turn generates more conversation around image—and then leads us to spend more energy improving our appearance, continuing the vicious cycle.

What it feels like to hit rock bottom

From an outsider’s perspective, influencer Kylie Shea Lewallen (who also simply goes by Kylie Shea) might appear to have a life free of body-image issues. After all, she has more than 475,000 Instagram followers, has starred in music videos, been on Broadway, performed with Bruno Mars and Ariana Grande, and spent four years dancing with Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle.

But Instagram, in particular, has been a minefield of self-image distortion for Lewallen. “It’s the nature of ballet to be chiseled and lean,” she says, “but I’ve never had that full aesthetic—in my whole life, not once. No matter how in-shape I am.”

Two years ago, she shared a particularly vulnerable post—one that seemed to resonate, judging from the 630,000 views. “I’d gone to the studio to film something on my day off,” says Lewallen. “I was so excited to get a creative day, but when I looked in the mirror, I just started crying. And I turned on the camera. I stood there and poked and squeezed and pinched areas of my body that were uncomfortable, shaping them into what all of these ballet dancers are going for.”

Last year, she posted a photo of herself in a parallel relevé, her back to the camera, owning the cellulite on the backs of her thighs. “That post was born out of a day where I’d been training really hard for a project and was feeling good,” says Lewallen. “Then I went into the studio, with the world’s most awful lighting. I’d been busting my butt for months and my cellulite was still there.” In her caption, she wrote that cellulite felt taboo on social media, but that she wanted anyone who had it to know they were not alone.

That vulnerability, she found, was a powerful force. “The overwhelmingly positive response was shocking,” she says. Markey says this reaction makes sense: By addressing her own body issues directly—on a platform that’s usually used to disguise them—she disrupted the cycle. “The more real we all are and the more we all admit we have flaws,” says Markey, “the easier it will be for others to embrace their flaws.”

The power of keeping it real

Social media platforms don’t have to be purely negative experiences for dancers, of course. It could be simply a matter of curating your content. For Ringer, it’s about reminding dancers that they are more than their vocation or the images they post. “I’m trying to start counseling my students to find their self-worth that’s not attached in any way to their performance, how they look or what they do,” says Ringer. “They have priceless value just doing nothing, sitting there, saying nothing. They might be injured, be out for a year, their body gets out of shape—but even then, they’re still precious.”

Remember, too, that life exists outside of Instagram. An existence built solely around social media, no matter how well-curated, is devoid of reality and authenticity. “Surrounding yourself in real life with people who are genuine and honest with you is the best thing that you can do,” says Lewallen. “The more human connection and genuine relationships you can have with people in real life, the better your mind will be when looking at this stuff.”

Body image distortion may be a learned behavior, but so is body positivity. “The super-truthful answer,” Lewallen admits, “is that it’s something I still struggle with. I haven’t gotten to a place where these issues don’t come up anymore. Even after everything I’ve done, I still have days when I get a call for an audition and I look in the mirror and think, I’m not ready for this.”

How to avoid the social media spiral

Markey has an easy-to-remember acronym to help those who might fall victim to toxic social-media scrolling: FACE.

“Go through your social media and filter out stuff that makes you feel bad,” says Markey. If there’s an account or a hashtag that consistently leaves you feeling hollow or unconfident, unfollow it. Psychologists call this process “protective filtering.”

Sometimes, it might make sense to take filtering to the next level—complete avoidance. “Give yourself parameters,” she says, like not scrolling during certain times of the day—mealtimes, bedtime—or even choosing to delete a social media app.

of comparisons. Photos on social media, Markey says, are idealized images—often heavily filtered and far from realistic. “So they’re not the right comparison to make,” she says. “When you catch yourself comparing, pull back and say, ‘Wait, this isn’t the right reference.’ These people have more resources. They have professional photographers.”

“Ask yourself: ‘What are these messages that I’m getting? Why are these things being put out there?’ ” Markey says. “Not only are they often fake, but also they’re usually selling something. It’s very likely a manipulation of you.”