05/07/2012 04:49 pm ET

Is Facebook Fueling Our Body Issues?

Varci Vartanian | The Daily Muse

Last Saturday night you were a legend-the reining queen of dive-bar karaoke. Your friends swarmed like the paparazzi, snapping pics and posting them to Facebook before you had time to protest.

The morning after, you click through quickly and don’t find anything too damning (you decide to forgive yourself for the air guitar solo during "Eye of the Tiger"), but log off worrying that the stress eating you've been doing with your new job is starting to show. And knowing that your Saturday shenanigans are uploaded for all to see, you vow for way more time on the treadmill this week.

If this sounds familiar, a just-published survey from The Center For Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt says you're not alone. In fact, out of 600 Facebook users surveyed, 75 percent reported being unhappy with their bodies, and 51 percent said Facebook makes them more conscious about their body and weight. The social media site "appears to be fueling a 'camera ready' mentality among the general public," the study concludes.

"The inner critic is not kind," says Susan Albers, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, and body image concerns. "For people who struggle with ups and downs in their weight, [seeing] posted pictures of themselves can be very difficult."

And for those with negative body image or eating disorders, there’s concern that the social media site (especially its newer features like Timeline, which allow for easy tracking of one’s life in pictures) may increase risk of dangerous weight-reduction behaviors. "Professionals used to worry about patients being triggered by static photos of ultra thin-women in magazines," says Albers. "Now, Facebook offers [their users] a barrage of photos of themselves and others. They come fast and furious, with new pictures every single day, every minute."

The Sheppard Pratt survey also reinforces something we already know-that Facebook is here to stay (80 percent of participants reported logging in at least once daily, and 61 percent reported more frequent use). We just can’t seem to part with status updates on doggy birthday parties and the rainbow of affection from Ryan Gosling. So, how do we save ourselves from spiraling into self-criticism if we're just looking for a good time? Here’s a few ideas for starters.

First, Take Inventory

Sheppard Pratt recommends observing the effect critiquing your appearance (and/or comparing yourself to others) is having on your self-esteem. Are you repeatedly scrolling up and down your Timeline to analyze yourself in a bikini circa Spring Break 2009? Are you posting comments on your friends’ photos that repeatedly focus on their weight or appearance? And what is your emotional reaction to these triggers-do you vow wildly to cut calories, or does the green monster of envy (or a sense of sadness) overtake you?

Then, Try a Little Mindfulness (and Tenderness, too)

If so, it's time to take a step back. Instead of automatically reacting with negativity, self-criticism, or body shaming-or starting yourself on your third diet this month-Dr. Albers recommends stepping back and using a practice called mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of organizing your thinking based on age-old Buddhist meditation practices-and has been used to treat anxiety, stress, depression, chronic pain, and sleep disorders. And yes, body image issues, too.

A brief primer on the practice of mindfulness:

  • Accept negative thoughts and feelings for what they are-just thoughts and feelings (like millions of others that pass through your consciousness all day long). There's no need to stop to analyze or manage their content-just note them, label them "negative thinking" and keep moving. "Mindfulness is being aware of how you feel without judgment," says Albers.
  • Try to redirect yourself into a more accepting space. Albers writes in her book Eating Mindfully to "let go of former and fantasized images of yourself and be present with who you are in the moment." She recommends, "instead of [advising them to] avoid Facebook, I work with my patients to try to accept the fact that our bodies do change over time and that is a natural process with having a baby or as you get older."

Using mindfulness is about accepting "what is" right now, instead of obsessing about the past or planning a massively calorie-restricted future. The hope is that your less anxious and judgmental self will be ready to re-learn your relationship with your looking glass and what to choose for a healthy lunch.

And Last But Not Least, Promote the Body Beautiful

Be the shining beacon of body-positivity on Facebook. Not just for yourself, but for your friends, too-chances are, they're dealing with the same feelings. Albers says she "posts as many positive healthy eating and body image articles I can on my Facebook page," and Sheppard Pratt suggests commenting on the non-physical accomplishments of your friends, not on their bodies. Ask friends to remove images of you that trigger negative thoughts (or just go stealth and quietly untag them yourself).

Also consider following body-positive websites-we particularly love Adios Barbie, an online community that waves goodbye to "narrow beauty standards" through articles and activism surrounding race, class, age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and size.

And do take the open invite on Facebook to connect to those friends who make you feel good about yourself. Albers emphasizes that Facebook isn’t all bad-having body image issues can be isolating, and the social media site helps you to "keep one toe in the social world, and is often an easy first step to connecting with others."

Most importantly, if you find yourself overwhelmed with self-criticism or engaging in potentially dangerous eating behaviors (or see a friend doing so)-seek the help of a licensed therapist or physician immediately. We want the girl who belts it out under the spangles of the disco ball spinning on the ceiling on Saturday nights to love herself, both online and off.

This article was originally published on The Daily Muse.

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