Trigger warning: I’m going to avoid triggering language as much as possible, but I will be discussing eating disorders and body image in this post.
We’ve all seen those photos. The inspirational quote, set to a background of a sunset, or a “One More Rep” picture with airbrushed model standing there, glistening ever so slightly while doing squats/deadlifts that is supposed to give us the motivation to push through. If we do that one extra rep, or run that one extra mile, maybe we too can look like that person. We all have that model in us, we just need to push through the pain to get there. However, what happens when this mentality goes too far?
The internet, like all tools, can be used for good and for evil, especially when it comes to exercise. Perhaps the biggest strength is the ability to get really good information from people you otherwise wouldn’t. Eric Cressey, Kelly Starrett and others give you access to information and videos based on sound science. They can push you to be stronger, workout smarter, and live the healthiest life you can. And sometimes, you can use those pictures of people being physically active as inspiration, a trend the kids these days call “fitspo,” a portmanteau for fit-inspiration. This can motivate you and gives you a goal to strive towards. Indeed, it’s a trope that has been used in movies ad nauseum. Who can forget the montage in Rocky IV where Rocky keeps looking at the picture of Ivan Drago in the mirror through his montage, eventually crumpling it in a most dramatic fashion (with heavy metal guitars playing in the background). The two ads featured here use the same idea to try and capitalize on this sense of greatness that we all hope is within all of us. However, like all behaviours, this is a balancing act, and can have devastating consequences.
When “fitspo” is taken too far, health consequences such as eating disorders and poor body image can manifest. Feelings of inadequancy, body dysmorphia and pushing yourself to unhealthy limits are all very real consequences faced by athletes of all stripes and at all levels from the rookie to the professional. The advent of the internet, and in particular, social media, has made this a bigger concern. While before finding like-minded people used to be difficult, now it has become easier than ever to find reinforcing opinions. At one extreme, you have internet-based subcultures growing that promote unhealthy weight loss. However, this also exists in the mainstream, and even using social media sites like Facebook can have similar consequences.
The former are communities built around both unrealistic ideas of beauty, as well as acting as forums that promotes unhealthy weight loss patterns via anorexic and bulimic behaviours. Two of the most popular are “thinspo” and “pro-ana,” representing thin-inspiration, and pro-anorexia respectively. Posting photos of those who they view as “thinspo” (thin-inspiration), these communities can provide “support” for people, preventing them from getting help and encouraging to indulge in these dangerous weight loss behaviours. The internet has created a way that anyone with internet access can join a community of like-minded individuals, who provide tips on how to achieve that “goal” as well as motivation on how to “succeed.” While some might think this is a relatively minor subculture, they are incredibly easy to find with an internet connection and Google. There are dedicated thinspo Tumblrs, Pinterest boards and other sites one can subscribe to for updates. What’s scariest about this is just how dedicated some of these members are. Regular updates, group support, advice on how to deal with others, as well as blogs that document progress lead to a terrifying community of young people who are encouraging each other with this incredibly dangerous behaviour. It’s led to shady communities that provides risky and dangerous support for potentially debilitating conditions.
This represents one significant outcome that people actively seek out. However, there are also other, more insidious, consequences from using social media. Since social media is inherently based on comparisons with others, this has consequences for how you perceive yourself relatively to everyone else. Rather than seeing both the good and bad of others, you perceive others as living happier and better lives than they actually do, a fact that exists by design since most people put forward their best face forward to represent their virtual selves. This is further compounded by the “friendship paradox” which states that, on average, your friends will have more friends than you (click the link for a more in depth discussion of how this works). Recent research has started to evaluate these ideas using the scientific method, and supports this hypothesis. In fact, increased usage of Facebook has been shown to be associated with a decline in subjective well-being among young adults in a 2013 PLOS ONE study. Similarly, a recent finding among 881 college women was that increased Facebook use was associated with more negative feelings and more comparisons to the bodies of friends. Both of these represent significant and important outcomes that we may not consider as “public health threats” yet, but can start health concerns such as body dysmorphia, and may lead people down the path towards the aforementioned online communities.
Public health practitioners need to be at the forefront of these trends, and be aware of them as they materialize. As we transition to a life where not only do we spend more time online, but are expected to be, more and more interactions take place exclusively in the virtual realm. The impact this can have on our physical, mental and emotional health is a burgeoning area that needs more research in order to best equip those in public health with the tools on how to succeed.
Additional resources: If you’re looking for help with any of these disorders or would like to learn more, consider calling National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Canada or National Eating Disorders Association in the US. Both organizations have helplines available. There is also more information via the Canadian Mental Health Association and National Eating Disorders Association.
Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, et al. (2013) Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69841. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0069841