How the Internet is amplifying poor body image

It's Love Your Body Week*. If you don't love your body, you're in good company. The crowd-funded documentary Embrace, in cinemas last month, told us that 70 per cent of girls don't much love their bodies. Forty-five per cent of women of healthy weight think they're overweight.

Australians, most of them women, spend $1 million a day on diets. They spend $1 billion a year on cosmetic surgery. The film's message is that while we are more than our bodies, our bodies have become how we measure ourselves.

But the film doesn't spend much time on the role of digital technology. Exposure to pornography and the objectification of girls starts young these days, twisted by exposure to violent online games such as Grand Theft Auto that are now played by boys as young as 10.

A parent in Embrace speaks for many of us when she says she feels as though her daughter is drowning in a sea of media that reinforces unattainable and dangerous expectations. "I'm in constant damage control," she says. The internet is amplifying her daughter's inner critic.

As a daughter and a parent, it's something I've pondered a lot. I most certainly wasn't comfortable in my own skin growing up, thanks to my colour and the invisible scars of South Africa's apartheid. I want my own children to be comfortable in the bodies they have. How amazing they are.

The online mobile photo- and video-sharing service Instagram bombards late primary school-aged children and teenagers with images all day long. There's pressure to get one's own images liked and commented on, to not fall behind.

While it's often argued that the internet supports new communities that allow people of all types to find someone who accepts them, it also does the opposite. Katie Roiphe, the American author of The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism, says of Instagram: "The fear of straying from the formula is matched only by the desire to be just a bit better at it. What is slightly chilling is the sameness, the lockstep, the absolute refusal of originality." The young people in my life agree. One says the rating of photos becomes the rating of people.

Exposed to a constant stream of air-brushed images of "beautiful" stars and wealthy celebrities, young people also see advertisements for products pushing a particular kind of perfection. "There's something branded, moneyed, about Instagram," Roiphe says. "The best things in life, it whispers to our teens, are by no means free."

Meanwhile, longer screen time is being linked to the eating disorders and higher calorie intake that make the images even less attainable. It eats into our sleep, encouraging us to consume still more snacks.

Poor body image is a public health issue. Education and intervention programs should be better targeted and funded.

Established research shows mothers are a key influence. Pressure to lose weight, appearance-related criticism and modelling of body image concerns and dieting behaviours from parents are correlated with, and prospectively predict, poor body image among adolescent girls. Improving children and young people's media literacy also helps them resist appearance-related pressures.

Embracing who we are has become more complicated. Digital technologies have become inescapable mirrors, reflecting back to us the image we have become. That image is of unhappy and discontented people. The best of the advice that's out there is to eat well, shower kids with unconditional love, plug out of social media more often, develop friendships that mutually nourish and get more sleep.

*Otherwise known as Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Article first published in The Canberra Times, 8 September, 2016.

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