Mental illness rates are increasing rapidly, and constantly being online, exposed to unfiltered comments and heavily filtered photos, plays a role.

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In a contemporary society ruled by social media, one can’t ignore its negative effects on people’s mental health. Mental illness rates are increasing rapidly, and constantly being online, exposed to unfiltered comments and heavily filtered photos, plays a role.

It is easy to hate every raw thing about your life when you’re constantly surrounded by the modified best parts of others’. Hence, social media platforms are understandably known to create negative body images.

So why is this bad and what can we do to improve the situation?

Body image refers to an individual’s perception of their own body; this can be heavily influenced by their idea of an ‘ideal body’, which is in turn often influenced by social media.

Someone with a positive body image is content with their own body and appreciates its appearance and physical abilities.

Social media provides constant exposure to filtered and altered photos taken in ideal poses, thus make it easy to create unrealistic ideas of body types such as extremely lean, muscular male bodies and female bodies with small waists but pronounced curves

This makes it increasingly difficult to have a positive body image and encourages negative body image instead. Having a negative body image, or body dissatisfaction is associated with a strong sense of frustration and dislike towards one’s body. Prolonged body dissatisfaction can trigger body dysmorphic disorders (BDD) or eating disorders (ED), thus causing physical and psychological harm to oneself due to body-modulatory behaviours.

According to the DSM-V, BDD includes an obsessive preoccupation with one or more perceived defects in one’s physical appearance, which are often not there or appear very slightly to others. This is accompanied by negative repetitive behaviours which alter their body, such as skin picking and excessive grooming. This warped perception results in clinically significant emotional and physical distress as well psychosocial impairments.

Although significantly different, BDD and EDs have some similarities and often co-exist. In fact, at least 25-39% of people with anorexia nervosa also have BDD.

A main difference is that people with BDD tend to fixate on a specific body part such as their hair, skin or nose whereas people with EDs fixate on their general body weight or shape, although there are exceptions to this.

Additionally, in eating disorders, body image disturbances must always lead to disturbed eating habits which in turn impair one’s health and psychosocial functioning.

Anorexia nervosa, which entails excessive food restriction and an abnormally low body weight due to a pathological fear of gaining weight and warped body images, is by far the most common, yet it is not the only ED.
Bulimia nervosa involves recurrent out-of-control binge eating episodes followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviours like self-induced vomiting, excess exercise and misuse of laxatives.
Other examples include orthorexia, binge eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

ED warning signs vary according to the type and person involved.

However, some common ones to be wary of include:

excessively checking one’s weight or appearance;

guilty feelings associated with food;

lying about eating habits;

increased fatigue;

changes in food portions and habits;

going to the bathroom instantly after eating;

excessive exercise;

feeling happy when being called underweight as well as

only eating in front of people or else avoiding eating in front of others.

Both EDs and BDD may give a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a body which you do not want.

Due to inadequate nutrition, EDs result in various morbidities, and in extreme cases death. Globally, EDs affect 9% of the population and cause over 10,000 deaths per year; with prolonged anorexia increasing the risk of early death by 18x.
  • Chronic, untreated EDs greatly increase the risks of other mental illnesses, along with physical effects including hair loss, amenorrhea and damage to the digestive tract, skin and bones.
  • Additionally, EDs can also negatively impact social and sexual aspects of one’s life.
  • EDs may greatly reduce one’s sex drive and
  • create various problems since touching a specific body part may result in a panic attack.
  • Additionally, it is quite hard to have sex with someone when you despise your own body.
Seeking help is never easy and having social media romanticise mental illness yet it is still stigmatised with little awareness doesn’t help.

Additionally, many people with eating disorders believe that they aren’t bad enough to need help; especially in cases where it is not very externally visible.

Many people suffering an ED experience denial and fear of treatment, worrying that this would result in excess weight gain.

There is a lot of shame and guilt associated with ED. I had personally felt ashamed, wondering how I ended up being shallow enough to care so much about my appearance, however, in reality EDs are much deeper than that.

While some, such as ARFID, are neurological; others feed on a need for control. When everything in life feels out of control, restricting food intake and controlling your body can provide the much needed sense of control and provides a sense of reward and satisfaction which further reinforces the negative eating habits. Treatment can be seen as a loss of this control, hence increasing fear and avoidance of getting help.

So, what can we do to help reduce EDs and their negative impacts?

1

Firstly, by raising awareness on what they are, why they happen and how to help. Currently it is very easy to joke about everything, especially mental illnesses; while this is an understandable coping mechanism, we need to start replacing this with healthy, insightful discussions on such topics

2

Creating safe spaces with our friends is crucial.

3

Therapy can also help by dealing with the root causes, modifying and preventing negative behaviours as well as improving one’s body image.

4

Furthermore, encouraging self-care directed behaviours and remembering that what you see on social media is not indicative of real life is crucial.

5

Finally, as a society we must ensure that professionals are aware of the warning signs and can deal with such patients in a compassionate way.

Encouraging body positivity, healthy lifestyle and safe, insightful discussions are all crucial in promoting better well-being for all.

Written by Antonella Bugeja – EYCA Youth Activist

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