There are many online communities dedicated to helping people achieve their ideal body or learn to love the body they have, but are these communities safe? Negative body image is something that many people have to grapple with in their life especially young women (Kostanski & Gullone, 1998). People come in so many shapes and sizes, the world is full of beauty, even if the media encourages us to believe that beauty is only found in a few lucky people. This can create a lot of stress and anxiety in peoples lives, feeling that you do not fit this image. Finding online communities gives people a sense of belonging as well as a space where they can begin to feel more acceptance of and confidence about their bodies. Negative body image can cause people anxiety but it can also develop into disordered eating habits. There are many online support groups that create safe a space for people to share their experiences and find support for recovery. Ridings & Gefen discuss how there are multiple studies that suggest online communities give people a place to find “emotional support, sense of belonging, and engagement” (2006). This allows users to engage with others that may have similar issues regarding body image. Stylelikeu gives people a place to go to see that true beauty is what you bring to the world not how physically beautiful the world decides you are. This allows people to feel accepted and gives them a community that they feel they belong to. There are also unsafe online support groups such as the Pro-Ana groups, which encourage unhealthy eating behaviors as well as encouraging the view that such behavior are a lifestyle choice rather than a potentially life threatening mental illness.
Keywords: Body Image, Online Communities, Pro-Ana, Body Positive.
The images of people used in mainstream media show a very narrow idea of beauty. This does not allow people to feel that others have the same concerns as them regarding their bodies and encourages a negative view of bodies that do not fit this very narrow image. Body image is something that many people have to grapple with in their life especially young women (Kostanski & Gullone, 1998). This is often exacerbated by the constant flood of images of “perfect” women in the media, unrealistic beauty standards implemented by a variety of media often attributes to lack of self-esteem and distortion in body image (Kostanski & Gullone, 1998). Some online communities look at making a space for users to accept themselves while others look to show how people can change their bodies to fit a different image of what they deem beautiful. Communities such as ‘Stylelikeu’ look at creating a supportive and safe body positive space to help people to see that they are more than their appearance. They create a space that opens up conversations as well as encouraging people to accept their bodies for what they can do rather than what they cant. Groups such as Stylelikeu show people that true beauty is inside and that accepting a body that doesn’t fit the mainstream idea of beauty is a journey that many of us are on. They show videos of people of many different shapes and sizes revealing their struggles while removing items of clothing to show the vulnerability in being almost naked. As they tell their stories they are showing that you are more than what is on the outside, your life story is all about experiences.
There are also online communities that have become unsafe spaces for people with negative body image. Such sites as Pro Ana (anorexia) or Pro ED (eating disorder) blogs, where eating disorders are seen as lifestyle choices that are rewarded and encouraged, instead of guiding users to get help to manage or recover from a mental health issue. The image of beauty portrayed within these groups is dangerous to its users, as it encourages unsafe practices as well as diminishes the heath ramifications that these practices could potentially have. This type of space is not conducive to improving ones body image, as Gavin, Rodham & Poyer (2008) discuss “[r]ather than a serious mental illness or disease, anorexia is constructed by its adherents as a lifestyle choice”.
Some users do not agree with this, they describe these communities as giving them support and leading to treatment (sowels et al, 2018). Many of these sites have been shut down due the dangerous aspects of the content. This could also be seen as only forcing these groups further away from mainstream sites making it harder for health organisations to share health information with them.
Online communities promoting body positivity are a great place for people to find a group where they can actively or passively interact with people with similar issues. The media industry, especially advertising, shows a very narrow view of beauty that is unattainable to most, Quintanar (2017) concludes that “This type of advertising is linked to women feeling poorly about their bodies, due to the fact that they do not share a similar body type to that being advertised”. This kind of advertising is now seen more than ever on the Internet. Women are constantly bombarded with images making them feel less valued because they do not fit to this narrow standard of beauty. There are many online communities trying to change this image of beauty. One of them being a Youtube channel called Stylelikeu. Stylelikeu creates a community where self-acceptance and self-love are valued over the need to look like the women in advertising. They create videos that show people exposing the parts of their body that society has deemed ugly or imperfect. Quintanar (2017) also argues that the negative effect mass media has on body image is being fought against with images of women of different shapes, sizes, height, weight and ability.
“Social media has the ability to be a driving force in how people perceive themselves”(Quintanar 2017), this can be for good or bad, seeing a broader range of body types allows people to build a better self-image that is more likely to fit with their body. Thus these online communities showing a very broad range of bodies is helping to create a better chance for people to have a healthy image of themselves.
There are online communities that are not safe spaces for users who have a negative body image. These pro ED communities are often found on blogs. Images and tips are shared for achieving this community’s idea of beauty. This often includes weight-loss, exercise and dieting tips (Tom Tong, 2013) which are unsafe and potentially life threatening. Quintanar (2017) argues that women’s “beauty, health, and success” is often tied up with their weight. It is however taken beyond that into a potentially life threatening ideal of beauty. Anorexia and Bulimia are serious mental illnesses and groups such as these often encourage behaviors that get people closer to this unsafe idea of beauty. “Females exposed to thin or anorexic content on various media platforms have significantly higher negative body image” (Sowles et al., 2018), combining images that are seen daily through advertising as well as on blogs such as these, creates a dangerous community for users.
”Viewers of pro-ED websites have increased body dissatisfaction, increased eating disturbance, lower self-esteem, poorer ED-related quality of life and perceive themselves as heavier than they are” (Sowles et al., 2018) meaning these communities continue the cycle of lowering self-esteem that is started from daily consumption of advertising. These communities often perpetuate dangerous body image ideals as well as promoting unhealthy eating habits. According to Wilson, Peebles, Hardy, & Litt in a 2006 survey of ED patients “35.5% reported visiting pro-ED websites; of those, 96.0% learned new weight loss or purging methods from such sites” (Sowles et al., 2018). This access to information creates a community that is potentially life threatening to its users. As this information is online, it is very easy for this to be done in private without other people in the users life to know that this is happening.
Sowels et al (2018) found that “users were prompted each week to post pictures and updates about their disordered eating goals, and content was consistently met with supportive dialogue”. These images shown on such sites may go against the usual images of beauty in mainstream media; however, the space created around this opposition negatively affects its users. As a lot of the information shared on these blogs is very personal, the connections made within the community can be very strong; Tom Tong (2013) suggests, “engaging in self-disclosure may be one of the primary ways in which pro-ana blogs facilitate the sense of virtual community among their members”. Many people see these communities as dangerous and they should be shut down.
These online communities create connections to blogs allowing a strong sense of community and also more efficient ways of spreading information. Sites such as Tumblr have taken action to shut down such sites (Yeshua-Katz & Martins, 2013). The structure of the community of blogs allows users to easily find more and more members of the community (Sowles et al., 2018), making it hard for these sites to be shut down.
Chung (2013) discusses results from the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey done in 2008, looking at peoples visiting habits of online support groups (OSGs) “about a third of people diagnosed with chronic health conditions reported visiting OSGs devoted to their health issues”. This shows the prevalence of searching outside of offline support and looking for dedicated online support. Chung also looks at how this can be a positive for many that cannot or will not look to offline support. As eating disorders can be so isolating having an online support group allows users that may otherwise not be engaging with support to find a space to connect with others (Chung, 2013). Despite the negative impacts, many users insist that these groups allow for support and recovery. Tom Tong (2013) also discusses “from a communication perspective, the mass personal nature of blog technology provides greater access to a larger network of like-minded individuals who can provide social and emotional support”. Many feel that it is sites like these that are the only place where they can feel more normal and openly discuss their issues with people who understand (Tom Tong, 2013). If the dangerous aspects of these sites could be removed these communities could be a great place for people to discuss life with an eating disorder rather than encourage them (Tom Tong, 2013).
There are many online communities dedicated to creating spaces for people wishing to engage with images of beauty that does not align with what is seen in the mainstream media. This can be in a safe or unsafe manner, regarding users health, depending on how they engage with the information presented within these communities. Stylelikeu encourages a deeper view of beauty that goes beyond the mainstream media’s surface view of beauty and worth. Communities such as these allow users to safely and openly discuss their issues with body image as well as engage in a more passive way through reading others experiences that may mirror theirs. This allows users to feel less isolated in their experience and encourages higher self-esteem.
These other communities looking to not adhere to mainstream beauty ideals do so in a way that is negative to the health of its community. Many also use these groups to get support through their eating disorder. There is also concern that taking down these sites only encourages them to become harder to access by health services that share information regarding recovery and health online. It also would take away a space for people where they can feel accepted and part of a community, especially when an eating disorder can be socially isolating. Many users have even suggested that they go to such communities in the hopes of recovery (Sowles et al., 2018). The media industry, especially advertising, is so prolific in our day-to-day lives that it can be hard to remove yourself from it. But in doing so many women would be less inclined towards low self-esteem.
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