FEATURE: Social Media: The silent influence

The power of social media in today’s culture is intimidating to say the least. The pressure it has on young women can influence and make ill of the young minds that depend so much on it.

Words Georgia Pearce

Scrolling through social media, the same images constantly come to the forefront – the female celebrities with the best bodies, new diet trends, new workouts to lose weight. To young, insecure women, this is another reminder of the body that they don’t have, the body they’ve been told they should have. Despite the filters and editing on these photos, they still become paranoid with their own unedited, unfiltered bodies. For some, this leads to mental health problems and more specifically, Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

BDD, short for Body Dysmorphic Disorder, is a mental health condition making sufferers excessively self-conscious. Sufferers make a habit of checking their appearance repeatedly and try to camouflage or alter the defects they see, but don’t actually have. BDD affects 1 in 50 people, with the average diagnosis age just 13 years old. It can interfere with the ability to function socially and in 1 out of 330 cases, lead to suicide. BDD is a disorder that can have a significant impact on someone’s day-to-day life.

Someone who knows how this feels is 18 year old Georgia Occomore from Surrey. Diagnosed at 17, Georgia never felt good about herself. “Growing up I always had a very low self esteem.  At 13 I noticed I was feeling very conscious about how I looked and what I wore. When I turned 17 it got to the stage where I would look in the mirror and cry because I hated what I saw. I looked ugly and fat, even if my family told me otherwise.” She tells me. On being diagnosed, doctors warned Georgia she was very underweight, and needed to change her eating habits or be hospitalised. “Weighing myself was a big issue because I could weigh 7 stone and still feel obese. It had a knock on effect on not wanting to go out with friends. They thought I was attention seeking but it wasn’t like that. I saw a fat monster.”

Another key factor in Georgia’s suffering she says is the pressure of social media. “I compare myself daily on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to every girl. Seeing celebrities and how thin and perfect they are makes me feel pressured to look like them. I definitely think social media influences teenagers’ minds, and part of me feels that it could cause BDD. The younger generation just can’t avoid it.”

A year on from diagnosis, Georgia is learning to love and accept her body. “I have come a long way, but I still have days when I wake up feeling insecure and can’t face the world.  I’m at a healthy weight now but I still struggle with eating and BDD. I guess I’ll feel like this until I am comfortable in my own skin.”

Georgia is not the only young woman pressured by social media. Kayla MacInnis, 25, from Stratford, London, found social media so pressurising that she now doesn’t share any pictures of herself.  “I have always been taller than those around me which always made me feel insecure. I’d look at photos with my friends or family and I think because I was taller, I also weighed a lot more even though I didn’t. I can’t find many photos of me from that time in my life because I found a way to make sure almost none exist. Every time I would walk by a mirror I would check if I looked any skinner. It was hard because I really did hate myself and it caused me to miss out things from my teenage years. I don’t post any photos of myself on social media because I know I don’t look like the girls that are on there and I don’t fit the mould that social media wants me to fit.”

After eventually seeing a doctor, Kayla found herself on anti depressants. “The drug helped me to think better of myself and the weight I had lost from constant dieting and starving myself slowly came back.” However, Kayla still very much struggles with BDD, but is learning to stop her usual habits.  “I still hate seeing photos of me. If I can go a day without looking in a mirror I’m usually happier, and I try not to weigh myself anymore because it triggers my BDD and I go back to square one.” She says downheartedly.

“I think social media is so prominent in today’s society and it’s sending the wrong message to young minds. If we use social media for body positivity it could make a huge difference rather than constantly idealising these celebrities and knocking each other down.”

And Sergio Petro, representative for the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, believes everyone should have that same frame of mind. “Today’s consumer culture has the power to influence a teenager to believe their appearance does not align with the ‘ideal’ image, in some cases developing illnesses like BDD, and that’s a terrible thought. A realistic perception of men and women is needed. Teenagers are not being taught that not having a body like a gym maniac is part of society too, and should be treated with the same amount of attention as being skinny does. A lack of diversity in the media has been an issue for decades and will continue to be if it’s not addressed.”

And according to Sergio, there needs to be more awareness of BDD. “We need to educate the public more about BDD.” He says sternly. “There should also be more awareness in schools about mental health, so we can tackle these cases from an even younger age.”

“Two recommended treatments from the BDD Foundation that have proved most helpful to people who have come to us are cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), specific for BDD, or serotonergic anti-depressants.”

In recent years, BDD awareness has increased in Britain, but not as much as we need. The BDD Foundation hopes to “break the stigma surrounding the condition and urges people with symptoms to come forward and seek help.”

For more information and advice, visit www.BDDfoundation.org.

 

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