Throughout my struggles with mental health, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the things that have helped and hindered my healing as I worked my way through depression, anxiety, and a truly unhealthy relationship with my own body. Social media, thanks to its subtle but lingering presence in my life, is one of those things. To be clear, social media has hurt me. It’s been a fuel for my dangerous habit of comparing myself to others. It’s led to overexercise and restrictive dieting as ways of punishing my body for not looking or performing the way I wanted it to. And it’s led me to feel shame and stigma during my bouts of fatigue, inactivity, and dissatisfaction.
Lately, though, I’ve realized that there are a lot of ways that social media can help us—as long as we’re a lot more careful and selective about how we use it. Social media can be an opportunity for us to saturate ourselves in messages of self-love and positivity in a world where negativity runs rampant. It can be an opportunity for us to bombard ourselves with images of people whose bodies look like us in a media culture that is still so toxic when it comes to representation.
Over time, my social media feeds have transformed from being the source of my self-doubt and have now become the catalyst for my own personal growth and improving my relationship with myself.
When I was nineteen years old, I was still convinced that I had to change my body in order to be happy. I thought that I discovered the truth by rejecting the “thin” ideal in favor of the “strong” ideal, and as such my Instagram follow list was full of yoga instructors and “clean eating” enthusiasts. To put it in context, every time I scrolled through my Instagram feed, I would see photos of thin women doing handstand splits and backbends in expensive leggings alongside photos of quinoa-avocado-black bean bowls. I didn’t realize it at the time, but seeing these images every day reinforced the already-poor relationship I had with my own body and the already-toxic relationship I had with food and exercise. I struggled for years with compensatory exercise—that is, using exercise as a form of punishment for food, especially after having a “guilty” meal. I also struggled with food shame and believed that my “uncontrolled” diet was the source of my body dissatisfaction. I thought that the images of yoga teachers in difficult poses and the images of “health” food would inspire me, but all they did was remind me of all the ways I fell short of being the person I thought I was supposed to be.
Since learning more about the body liberation movement and radical self-love, I’ve become much more intentional about who I follow on social media. My Instagram feed is now radically different from how it looked before.
Now, I only follow my friends, a few of my favorite celebrities, and people who are committed to body liberation, feminism, and social justice. When I scroll through my Instagram feed, I see photos of body positive activists embracing their visible belly outlines, plus size bloggers breaking fashion “rules” for fat folks, and examples of modified yoga poses that are accessible for different bodies.
Just by following more people whose bodies look like mine, my body image has improved a great deal.
Not only is it a question of representation and realistic expectations, but being exposed to a diversity of body types also helps counteract the hurtful messaging from television shows and magazines telling me that there is only one “perfect” way a person can look. Likewise, it’s been beneficial for me to follow people who are content with their bodies as is because it pushes me to question my own body dissatisfaction and work towards a more peaceful relationship with my body. And ultimately, it’s helped me approach food and physical movement from a mindset of self-love and self-care as opposed to restriction and self-punishment.
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Relatedly, I’ve disengaged with the social media platforms that fueled much of my negative self-comparison to others. It’s hard not to feel bad about myself when I see my peers post about their accomplishments and milestone, especially when they’re coming at times when I feel like my own life is at a standstill. I know people don’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings when they post about their accomplishments—after all, people should get to celebrate the great moments of their lives. But it’s almost human nature for us to see other people’s successes and then think of all the ways we don’t measure up.
Any time I feel inadequate about where I’m at in life, a good friend reminds me of how performative social media is, and that even though most people seem like they’re happy and thriving on Facebook and Instagram, they may not necessarily feel that way themselves—at least not all the time.
I certainly don’t share the low moments of my life on social media, and I need to remind myself that others likely feel the same way. In a rare moment, someone I know once shared a graduate school acceptance letter alongside a rejection letter, making the point that it’s just as important to share our failures in addition to our successes. That’s something I don’t see enough, though I imagine we’d all probably feel a lot better about ourselves knowing the struggles and obstacles everyone else has encountered before they got to where they are.
Nowadays, I’m more of a passive consumer of social media as opposed to an active participant.
I check Instagram every day to get updates from my favorite body positive accounts and plus size fashion bloggers, but my own Instagram—which used to be filled with performative snark and sarcasm throughout my struggles with depression—is now almost exclusively dedicated to pictures of my dogs. I check Facebook every once in a while to talk to friends and family who live overseas, but I rarely pay attention to my feed on there. I’m on Twitter multiple times a day checking on the latest trending topics, but I don’t put much of an effort into building a bigger presence for myself. It stresses me out to think about having to perform social media or create an internet persona to myself that I’d just rather not participate in it at all. At this point, I’m happy to just be learning from all the great folks on social media who’ve taught me invaluable things about body liberation, self-love, and mental health recovery.
Social media is everywhere, and for a lot of us it’s a tough thing to avoid. That’s why it’s so important to be careful about how we use it, and the types of content we’re exposing ourselves to every time we check it. I let go of anything on my social media that was associated with body negativity, restriction, and shame.
I replaced all of that with people who inspire me and empower me to be satisfied with the person I am today—whatever the status of my body, career, and mental health. Once I did that, I began to see an improvement in the way I saw myself. So while you may not be able to get rid of social media altogether, it’s certainly possible to mitigate its impact and transform it into a tool for self-love.[Featured Image: Three people stand outdoors awaiting public transportation as each person looks into their phone. Pexels.com]