Safe and Unsafe Online Communities for People with Issues Surrounding Body Image


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.





Chung, J. (2013). Social interaction in online support groups: Preference for online social interaction over offline social interaction. Computers In Human Behavior29(4), 1408-1414.

Gavin, J., Rodham, K., & Poyer, H. (2008). The Presentation of “Pro-Anorexia” in Online Group Interactions. Qualitative Health Research18(3), 325-333.

Kostanski, M., & Gullone, E. (1998). Adolescent body image dissatisfaction: relationships with self-esteem, anxiety, and depression controlling for body mass. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 255–262.

Ridings, C., & Gefen, D. (2006). Virtual Community Attraction: Why People Hang Out Online. Journal Of Computer-Mediated Communication10(1), 00-00.

Silverstein, B., Perdue, L. Peterson, B., & Kelly, E. (1986). The role of mass media in promoting a thin standard of bodily attractiveness for women. Sex Roles, 12(9/10), 519-532.

Sowles, S., McLeary, M., Optican, A., Cahn, E., Krauss, M., & Fitzsimmons-Craft, E. et al. (2018). A content analysis of an online pro-eating disorder community on Reddit. Body Image24, 137-144.

Quintanar, S. J. (2017). Reducing negative body image through positive social media (Order No. 10253676). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1855930808). Retrieved from


Yeshua-Katz, D., & Martins, N. (2013). Communicating Stigma: The Pro-Ana Paradox. Health Communication28(5), 499-508.

18 thoughts on “Safe and Unsafe Online Communities for People with Issues Surrounding Body Image

  1. Hi Madeleine, Your paper highlights some very real concerns about body image and also about online communities. Your comment: “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” (McLeod, 2018 para.11). I agree such online communities that have mushroomed provide a place of understanding, safety and support, and have been a lifesaver for many. In fact, a friend of mine had her breast implants removed just yesterday. The support of online communities such as those you mention above have led her to understand her circumstances and illness because of these implants, and encouraged her to resolve the issue and how, and will also support her in her road to recovery. Thanks for illuminating these important matters Madeleine. Regards, Alice.

    1. Hi Alice,
      Support that is gained from such sites is really an amazing part of online communities, especially surrounding topics that many may feel uncomfortable talking to their friends and families about. It’s so great that your friend found the support she needed. It can be hard online though as some communities which may seem to offer support, can become unsafe spaces where more harm than good is done.

      Regards, Madeleine

  2. Hi Madeleine, Your paper highlights some very real concerns about body image and also about online communities. Your comment: “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” (McLeod, 2018 para.11). I agree such online communities that have mushroomed provide a place of understanding, safety and support, and have been a lifesaver for many. Thanks for illuminating these important matters Madeleine. Regards, Alice.

  3. Hi Madeleine.
    I found your conference paper to be quite intriguing, particularly when you emphasised the notion that the media playing a vital role in shaping our thoughts and perceptions. I also agree with you on the notion that the media is occasionally an incentive factor for when it comes to depicting beauty in ‘special’ people. However, I also believe that it’s also society that can influence our perceptions on aesthetics and what the ‘ideal’ body should look like.
    We’re all social beings, coming different races, psychological, and physiological backgrounds. I know for a fact that the more we have desires for people with an ‘ideal’ body image, the worse we feel about ourselves. This is particularly evident when we cannot find the fundamental characteristics of a typical, healthy body. In addition, some people, who are unfortunately born with genetic defects endure a distinct body image. Consequently, they would have no choice but to live with this body image and learn to retain self-respect. This, I believe, would provide some valuable insights for those in society who aren’t particularly content with their body image. The sole moral of the story is to be content with ourselves and our uniqueness.
    Finally, I believe that support for individuals with a negative body image should first come from our local communities. I also agreed with you on the idea that some online communities are also affecting many people who lack sufficient knowledge pertaining to health issues. Hence, I believe that these community platforms should be eradicated from social networking websites.
    Great article overall 🙂
    – Ali

    1. Hi Ali,

      Your point about there being a distinction between the media and society was very interesting. I feel they go hand in hand, media influences society and vice versa or that they are all part of the same system.

      Thats why I personally really love the body positivity communities, they show people of different abilities who feel beautiful in their own bodies. They also show the struggle it can be for many to get to that point, they don’t make you feel like its something that is easy for everyone.

      As I mentioned above to Elise, with the way the web is structured it is almost impossible to get rid of these communities. As well it only encourages these already isolated communities to have less contact with health professionals and may also mean that they lose an avenue for support.



  4. Hi Madeleine,

    It is quite scary knowing the intense power of the internet and online communities to shape people’s thoughts and encourage (or discourage) people to do certain things. I am not sure if I understood your opinion on the subject of these communities in relation to eating disorders. Do you think the potentially dangerous aspect of these communities is worth it if there are some that might help others get better rather than foster more self-loathing? Should they be continuously shut down or maybe even run by professionals so they are able to monitor discussions?

    As you have said, the media has played a large role in the cause of eating disorders, with the lack of diversity in movies, promotions etc, but these online communities started by people with eating disorders for people with eating disorders have the potential to cause further issues and even lead to suicide. Instead of comparing themselves to quite skinny celebrities or other people they see, they have the opportunity to compare themselves and their bodies to people who are literally starving themselves.

    I watched a new movie on Netflix called ‘To the Bone’ the other day and it followed an anorexic girl who was sent away for rehabilitation and group therapy. Being surrounded by other anorexic people in some ways hindered her progress and improvement even more, they taught her different ways to get around the weigh-ins, encouraged her not to eat etc. It’s interesting how social interaction can be so detrimental in these cases, and obviously in online communities there is no therapist or anyone watching over them to stop what they are doing, to save them.


    1. Hi Elise,

      I think the issue with any topic like this is that there is not one simple answer. Shutting down these sites could do a lot of short term damage, even if later on there were benefits from people not having access to them. I think it would need not just an overhaul of these sites but also of society, as this is where a lot of the negativity is coming from surrounding peoples size.

      I have also seen that film, and I agree it seemed to in some ways be detrimental in the same ways these sites are, with the sharing of tips.

      The hard part about online communities is that even if they do get shut down they will continue to pop up and go even more underground where they would become impossible to monitor. They could even end up creating groups on the dark web, which then wouldn’t allow health professionals to even share helpful information there.

      Thank you,

      1. Hi Madeleine

        I agree, the solution to this issue is not clear or simple. Media representations of society should reflect society! Not just the small portion of people with genetics that allow them to be small, and the money to keep in perfect shape (or even people with their own eating disorders).

        Although, the internet and online communities definitely play a big role in continuing the horrible cycle. Obviously parents could be restricting and monitoring internet use, but this disorder affects people of all ages so it’s hard to pinpoint what might work in order to keep people safe.


  5. Hi Madeleine,

    It is disheartening to read the statistics and research findings surrounding this topic and I was not aware there were blogs promoting anorexia and eating disorders but I am disgusted by the thought. I do believe that it is all the images of stick thin celebrities and the public fat shaming they receive if they go up a dress size is what causes the issues. However, I am pleased that there are also body positivity communities to be found online.

    I myself am not a skinny person, but I value my health over my size. I took me a long time to get to that mind set and there are still times I wish I looked good in a particular item of clothing, but I would rather be “plus sized” than harming myself to be skinny. The part I find terribly sad about this is that I had to change my way of thinking at all. I think everyone needs to start seeing the beauty on the inside as more important than a dress size or the world will continue to lose beautiful individuals to this awful issue. No human being should ever be made to feel that they are not good enough unless they look Photoshopped.

    Thank you for writing this interesting piece.

    1. Hi Amy,
      There are so many amazing sites that try to encourage a healthy body image. I find them to be such inclusive places, not only for weight, but any other parts of our bodies that society has deemed to be an “issue”. If social media etc. focused more on these types of communities, I think we could all be a lot more content with our bodies and what they can and can not do.


  6. Hi Madeleine,

    I really enjoyed reading your paper, body image, eating disorders, and online communities are a massive topic.

    I agree that it would be virtually impossible to shut down these communities, in fact I have seen subreddits on Reddit come and go, and new ones always replace them.
    I am wondering your thoughts on body image in terms of the plus-size community. Do you agree that there can be some damaging influence in these communities who are trying to normalise being overweight or obese? Whilst I agree that you should be body positive and speak kindly to yourself, I also think that it is wrong to promote ill-health through obesity due to its many health risks.


  7. Hi Madeleine, thank you for writing such an interesting paper. It’s shocking to see there are sites promoting and encouraging eating disorders. It’s also so detrimental to see that the mainstream media, celebrities and even ‘influencers’ play such an powerful and influential role in what society perceive as the ‘goal’ body. People like Kylie Jenner, who have such an enormous following and influence with teenagers and even tweens promote a lifestyle that has become an ideal to many. Botox and lip fillers, the breast implants and toned, perfectly sculpted bums have become so commonplace within society now, it’s incredibly scary. You can see why many young girls/young adults or anyone really who has body image issues would feel seeing these manufactured ideals all over social media.

    I know, when i’ve been scrolling through Instagram and all you see is toned and trim bodies and hardly anything resembling a ‘normal’ body, it’s very deflating. However it is wonderful to see communities promoting and encouraging body positivity and seeing a shift in companies (like Sportsgirl and their long partnership with the Butterfly Foundation) using real people and untouched, unfiltered images – we just need more of it. Thanks again Madeleine.

    1. Hi Peggy

      It’s interesting that you note Kylie Jenner as an influencer that might promote or unintentionally encourage eating disorders. The “in” thing recently is trying to achieve a thicker body type rather than skinny, which was popular last decade. Although I do note that the curvy that is popular seems to be restricted to a large bum and chest rather than natural rolls or cellulite perhaps. A lot of women on Instagram tend to look the same which is largely due to drastic plastic surgery, however this is something they usually admit and speak about as it is becoming less of a taboo – I’ve seen many people even tag their plastic surgeon! It would be interesting to know how this influences people or affects body disorders.
      There has also been a rise in body positive larger models promoted on Instagram etc that promote the idea of beauty at all sizes (ie. Ashley Graham, Tess Holliday).
      I wonder if this may have the opposite effect, encouraging over-eating and perhaps promoting the idea that obese or overweight people are healthy. This seems to be a super sensitive topic as well!


  8. Hi Elise, my take on Jenner is that she’s promoting a lifestyle that really is only accessible to few in terms of cosmetic surgery and although it may not be intentional, her actions do influence those that follow her – a lot would be teens and tweens who are still growing. This influence can definitely have negative affects on people’s self-presentation, esteem and confidence and what they may think society ‘desire’. I love & it’s its so important that we’re now acknowledging greater that people come in all shapes and sizes and the Ashley Graham and Robyn Lawley’s of the industry have definitely shifted the Fashion/Modelling world’s viewpoint on this. Have you noticed the rise of Instagram influencers and fitness profiles? There seems to be an abundance of these ‘fit guides’ around where a lot of them were built & created a following through Instagram – Kayla Itsines, Keep It Cleaner (KIP). It’s fantastic seeing health at the forefront of body positivity but could this build up just continue to create pressure young girls? It’s a balancing act for sure with so many variables.
    Thanks so much for your comment Elise!

    1. Hi Peggy

      There is definitely so many different body types, from the plastic surgey, to the larger women, to the extremely fit gym junkies! I think they all have a role in influencing users, and unfortunately all have the potential to introduce negative perceptions of body image and self-esteem issues. They usually avoid describing the difficult side of how they achieved their bodies and their own self-love issues – only highlighting the positives and making normal people think that no one goes through the same feelings and issues, encouraging an ideal that can be unachievable for some people.

      It is definitely a big issue in social media communities. I have to remind myself every day that I’m seeing fake everything and not to compare myself.


  9. Hi Madeleine,
    Thanks for a great read, I found this topic incredibly interesting. It seems to me that the increasing prevalence of body positive online communities is having a positive effective on large corporations in both their product offerings and in their advertising techniques.
    Online communities, such as Caitlin Stasey’s website which celebrates the female form and the Instagram account @anybody which was created as a response to negative comments online, have led the charge for changes to the way corporations present themselves online. is a prime example of an organisation taping into an underrepresented, yet large, customer base with their curve, petite, tall and maternity ranges has received positive reception from media and consumers.
    The power of the online voice of many individuals when combined is loud enough to effect change to our culture offline.

    1. Hi Myra,

      You are so right, if we all demanded better of these companies we could see such changes. It’s great to see that some already have made a change.


  10. Thanks for a great read Madeleine. Body image is a topic which has long dictated the lives of many of us and it is sad to think so many people are enslaved to perfecting themselves according to common perceptions of perfection that surround us. As you rightly highlight, the beauty of online communities are they can be helpful for people to process perceived shortcomings about themselves with others and feel as though they are not alone. However, you have also shown a side of online communities which circulate ideals which are of detriment to the wellbeing of many, and also prey on the vulnerable states of mind which exist. My partner has told me about websites which encourage taking dangerous measures to achieve an idealistic look. Sadly, it takes examples like this to inspire change but if it continues to spawn more examples of communities designed for the view that we are fine the way we are, hopefully this viewpoint can take over.

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