Many people go to sleep thinking about what they will wear the next day in hopes that others will approve of their choices. They take time to research the current trends and try to craft their clothes to fit the mold of what is deemed appealing. They wake up and look in the mirror to find that they do not resemble the online influencer that society idealizes. They go through their day wanting more from themselves. Why aren’t they as skinny? Why aren’t they as smart? Why are they cursed with real, human-like features that the models do not have? Why can’t they be as perfect as them? After a full day of self-comparison, their “average-looking” body winds down by looking through their social media feed and critiques every inch of itself. Their mind is careful not to spare a small detail, even though the person analyzing their imperfections knows it will never reach the image of which modern beauty standards desire. This is a vicious cycle of thought that plagues many developing minds of the youth. So many teens struggle with self-comparison and low self-esteem. The biggest cause of those negative mindsets are the effects of modern-day media. The media includes any form of social media or beauty standards formed from pop culture, television, movies, along with various other forms. These things have become a huge part of everyday life, and the influence they possess is incredibly profound. Social media and modern beauty standards promote an unhealthy lifestyle and inflict harmful behavioral or thought patterns in the minds of the youth.
“I think there’s a significant impact that social media has on adolescents, especially their cognitive development, their mental health and how they see themselves. I think self perception can change based on the amount of time they are spending on social media,” said psychology teacher Catherine Dodd. Social media has negative correlation to mental health due to a myriad of factors. A leading mindset that is caused by the indulgence of social media is social comparison. Social comparison is where an individual compares themselves to others, which often leads to unhealthy self criticisms.
“The comparison trap would be that you’re making upwards social comparisons to your own life. A person is setting the bar for what their life should look like as opposed to what reality is. There’s this unrealistic way of looking at social media like its reality, but in actuality you’re only getting front page news. Everyone is curating their social media to make it look like they have perfect things when in reality they don’t. There’s a cascade and trail of consequences because of that,” Dodd said.
It is incredibly common for influencers, and even most adolescents, to use filters or photoshop to alter their appearances in their profiles. When an individual is exposed to someone having seemingly perfect skin, perfect teeth, an hourglass figure, or whatever is in style at that point in time, even if it is the result of photoshop, it convinces the brain that those things are normal. The amount of harm done by celebrities lying about having plastic surgery or photoshopping photos is immeasurable. It is convincing millions of followers that extreme features are natural and that those followers are expected to obtain those features to be deemed as beautiful.
“I think thin, light-skinned, long hair and perfect skin are really idealized in general. It’s really just unrealistic and unfair. It puts so much pressure on kids. Girls grow up thinking that they should look like that, and it’s not something that can be expected from anyone,” said junior Ailani Pedroza. Social comparison and the engagement in society’s expectations of beauty take a gigantic mental toll on the youth. Women are at higher threat to this negative exposure with many standards being surrounded around how women should look or how they should transform their bodies to be more physically appealing to men. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are twice as prevalent among women compared to men. This statistic is not meant to invalidate men who have struggled or state that men cannot fall victim to negative thinking because of social media, but the issue of disordered eating in relation to beauty standards is heavily skewed to be a more feminine issue.
‘With eating disorders, there could be psychological influences or biological factors, but a lot of times it’s socio-cultural. The internet is completely deceiving. It’s everywhere and seeing all of these influences promoting all these products isn’t for everybody. It’s easy to say “be who you are” to people, but it’s hard when you see that this is what’s getting millions of followers and you’re you,” said health teacher Carolyn Gaffke. Society gravitates towards unhealthy expectations, leaving many people feeling hopeless and unfulfilled with their image. For decades, the desired body type, especially for women, has been perfectly skinny with curves in all of the desired places for men. The male gaze has heavily impacted the way that women perceive themselves in the realm of being attractive or appealing to society. Due to the thought process that smaller bodies are more favorable, there is an intense negative connotation with gaining weight or being called overweight.
“I think it’s definitely dangerous to have so much negative stigma around being overweight or looking a certain way. It can lead you to do dangerous things like develop an eating disorder or self harm. I feel like none of those mental illnesses are really acknowledged, especially in association with discomfort with your body or what you look like. People aren’t very open about it because it’s very tough to talk about but I feel it should be less of a taboo subject to talk about,” said Pedroza.
It is incredibly important to look for warning signs in others to prevent eating disorders because of the unfortunate fact that unhealthy eating habits or lifestyles are becoming more prevalent within adolescents.
“There can be so many different signs. It could be physical, it could be emotional, you could see weight fluctuations, and it could be something as simple as people trying every single different diet. A person may not feel comfortable eating in front of you or they have physical symptoms where they are dizzy, maybe they’re having huge deficiencies in their iron count or things like that. Another sign is seeing some obsessive tendencies with food and checking nutrition labels,” Gaffke said. It can be really difficult to confront a loved one who is struggling with disordered or unhealthy eating habits. Gaffke recommends preparing talking points ahead of time and making sure that the conversation is not led with aggressive statements that target the victim or make them feel guilty.
In recent years, social media has grown immensely. Due to this, it is more challenging for adolescents to detach themselves from the grasp of their social media feeds. This can make recovery for negative thinking and low self-esteem harder to acquire. How does an individual stop the cycle of self-comparison and criticism? The answer may seem pessimistic, but it is entirely up to the individual to make changes in their life.
“Unless there’s a mass change in our culture that disperses what we should believe about beauty, it’s not gonna change. It’s up to the individual to harness their own agency and say that they have to change that for themselves because unfortunately society isn’t going to change,” Dodd said. The first step to developing a healthier perspective is awareness. This could be as simple as an individual realizing how much they indulge in their appearance or other peoples’ lives, the amount of time they spend looking at social media, or the fact that they are developing unhealthy habits. Motivation to reconstruct the mindsets that an individual carries or the way in which they go through their day is a necessity.
“Focus on some things that you’re good at and take the focus off of looks. Taking inventory about things about yourself that you appreciate. It becomes less about how we’re looking or our outward appearance, and more about our character and our hearts, which is difficult in the age of social media. Appreciate the natural beauty that everybody has. I think it is really important to know we have a sense of uniqueness that is beautiful. People who look perfect, they’re also measuring up to their own standards of perfection and beauty,” Dodd said. Creating positive affirmations can be a huge help to anybody who is struggling with self-esteem. By focusing on actual qualities that people possess over what they look like, it releases pressure to appear a certain way and it creates more of an importance in regard to somebody’s character. However, trying to remain positive is more easily said than done when it comes to a topic that is such a mental battle for many.
“I would say to love yourself, but it’s not that easy. Ideally I would be able to say be positive and then everyone would flip a switch. Just try your best. You shouldn’t care about what other people think because they are not you. Your opinion is what is most important in your own life and you should do what you want to do, not what others want you to do,” Pedroza said. When an individual prioritizes their own needs and health first, then the rest of the journey towards recovery and positive thinking does not seem as daunting as before. Pedroza also stressed that getting off of social media and not being as invested is also a great start to detaching an individual from the media’s unfair expectations.
“I think it’s just really important that everybody gives themselves a little bit of grace. Know that everything we see isn’t always reality. These influencers are getting paid to do that. Just do what makes you feel happy and good about yourself, because in the end that’s all that matters,” Gaffke said.
Being aware and cautious of the danger of social media can save many people from spiraling into destructive habits.