By Samantha Hargreaves, BSc

The global explosion in the availability and use of various forms of social media is having a major impact on how many of us see ourselves and others.  Researchers have found that frequent use of image-laden social media in particular, such as Instagram, is correlated with a negative impact on users’ self-esteem.

This is not just an issue for women affected by images promoting specific body types as the criteria for female beauty, it is now impacting increasingly upon men.  A surprisingly high proportion of men now report being dissatisfied and preoccupied with concerns about their appearance – one American study found this to be as high as 43%, a figure that has reportedly tripled in the past 25 years.

The Broken Mirror

Self-esteem is a powerful and important psychological factor in mental health and well-being, developed and maintained through a psychological dynamic between how we perceive and value ourselves according to a particular set of criteria or ‘values’.  The criteria we use varies according to socio-cultural context and ‘norms’, as well as our own individual values – and this is where the powerful influence of social media images promoting particular cultural notions of masculinity can have in insidious effect on the self-esteem of men, with worrying and sometimes very serious consequences for their physical and mental health.

Body dysmorphic disorder affects as many men as it does women – it is a severe psychological disorder within the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, characterized by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one’s own body or appearance is severely flawed or abnormal and requires exceptional measures to hide or fix it.  Thoughts about the dysmorphia are pervasive, intrusive and highly distressing, often occupying several hours a day, and can lead to debilitating levels of anxiety, depression and social withdrawal.

Muscle dysmorphia – sometimes dubbed “bigorexia” or “maxorexia” – is a recently identified form of eating disorder that affects primarily men. It is characterised by the delusional and obsessional belief that one’s body is too small, too skinny or insufficiently muscular, and in the majority of cases the individual’s build is within a normal range or even large and muscular already. Men suffering with muscle dysmorphia become obsessed with muscle building and extreme dieting in the attempt to achieve a bigger and more muscular physique, devoting the focus of their lives in the pursuit of the perfect body. Compulsive working out at the gym is common, often involving extreme, punishing and very time-consuming physical programmes.  Of particular concern, muscle dysmorphia may lead to potentially dangerous abuse of anabolic steroids.

As stated recently in Men’s Health magazine in its article ‘Muscle in the Age of Instagram’,

“Studies into fitspiration show that, regardless of the earnestness with which fitness influencers talk about training for health, it is ultimately the way they look that attracts followers… and the bigger your body, the larger your following.”

Although the majority of men will not develop preoccupation with their appearance as severely debilitating and distressing as body or muscle dysmorphia, research shows that the impact of image-laden social media is undoubtedly having a negative effect on the self-esteem of an increasingly large proportion.

Mind the Gap

Issues with self-esteem can arise when we perceive there is a gap between our “ideal” and “real” self. This can be further affected when there is a tendency towards making unfavourable comparisons of ourselves with others – and many studies have shown that image-laden social media such as Instagram and Facebook do exactly that, leaving us feeling that we just don’t measure up. When it comes to comparing our appearance negatively, this persists in spite of us knowing the majority of photographs have been carefully selected and digitally enhanced – i.e. we know they are not representations of reality, and yet we can still end up with a deep and distressing sense we’re just “not good enough”.

Show Me the Money

When the consequences of engaging with image-laden social media can be so detrimental to their emotional and physical wellbeing, men would be wiser to retain a healthy level of scepticism and remember that it is big business. Many of the images are intentionally posted as ‘click bait’ to attract attention for the purposes of marketing products and services.

Again, as mentioned in Men’s Health magazine, “The bodybuilding stars of social media have considerable earning potential. For a sponsored Instagram post, the general fee is £80-100 per 10,000 followers.”

Steps to Self-Acceptance

There is a radical solution to the self-esteem issues that the frequent use of image-laden social media can lead to. A solution that is deceptively simple, yet extremely powerful. It can completely change our relationship with ourselves with amazingly positive results for our happiness and wellbeing… and it doesn’t require a single minute in the gym!

The solution is simply a shift of perspective and making the active and conscious choice of self-acceptance.  Acceptance is about allowing things to be as they are, not needing perfection, not struggling against what ‘is’ nor striving for or clinging to the need and desire for what ‘isn’t’.  This dramatically changes the way we perceive everything, through a nurturing and compassionate relationship with ourselves.

What if we changed ourselves inwardly, shifting our perspective by choosing our own set of values, instead of trying to change ourselves outwardly in an attempt to resemble or attain what is externally defined by others with their own agendas, and which is in reality rather trivial and superficial in the grander scheme of life?  What if we just accepted ourselves exactly as we are, right now?

And what if we practiced gratitude and appreciation for all that we have instead of focusing on what we feel we are lacking?

According to psychologist Dr Tim Bono – author of the book When Likes Aren’t Enough,Taking time for gratitude has the opposite effect of social comparison—it redirects our attention to the many wonderful things we already have in our lives that are already there but that we have likely taken for granted.  People who take just a few minutes to focus on what they’re grateful for feel better about their lives overall, report more optimism about their futures, and even get sick less often.”

Samantha Hargreaves, BSc
Clinical Psychologist

Tel:  010 3282 8824.