Body Dysmorphia, Diet Culture and Our Screens
Written By: Sharmishtha Singh
Edited By: Nicole Anne Hia
Trigger Warning: This piece may contain some points on fat shaming, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, weight stigma and diet culture.
In the movies and television programmes that most of us have grown up watching, there have been many stereotypes and problematic representations that we’ve only now begun to understand for what they were – a mockery – whether be it of people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community or people that didn’t fit the set mould of acceptable physicality prevalent at the time. Protagonists or the lead characters are, more often than not, conventionally ‘good-looking’, ‘fit'/ thin/ not fat. But that does not mean that there isn’t a character that does not fit into that box of conventionally desirable, because there is almost always a ‘fat' character either for comedic relief or to be a supportive and devoted best friend. This person is either all over the place, always eating, clumsy, funny and happily the object of all jokes or a shy and insecure ‘nerd’ who is sometimes subjected to bullying and saved by the ‘good-looking' lead or acts as a moral voice to the ‘good-looking’ lead. Although with the advent of over-the-top (OTT) platforms the situation has seen some changes, the representation – on the whole – is still terrible, with the majority of bigger characters’ stories revolving around them not being thin.
While on the surface it feels like the world of fashion is making strides to champion body inclusivity – it’s really not. ‘Plus-size’ models are almost always reserved only for ‘plus-size’ lines, despite a lot of them having a size ranging from 12-18 that is more common for and more representative of a larger population than the sizes of 0-2. For clothes whose sizes range from XS to XXL, online stores will only put pictures of models wearing XS/S and with sizes ranging from M to 5XL, lines will still only upload pictures of models wearing L/XL and sometimes 2XL. In this way, the fashion industry creates a barrier; people with regular sized bodies will always feel bigger than they are because they will always question if a particular article of clothing is even meant for them or whether it will look as good on them as it does on the size 0 model. When one looks at a dress and likes it it’s not just because of the dress alone but also because of how it falls, how it shapes and how it looks on the body of the model posing. If one is not size 0 or closer to it, it will obviously not look exactly the same on them as it did on the model. This dichotomy between what one sees on the screen and in the mirror is what leads one to believe that they don’t yet have the body that they should have. Because this isn’t just about a one-off instance about a dress. This is about everything that surrounds us from models wearing only small sizes when we shop for clothes, to advertisements/ websites for makeup and jewellery also only using models who are much smaller than the average population.
TikTok, an increasingly popular social media platform for all ages, allegedly discriminates in its promotion of creators in its “for you” page. Its algorithm excludes videos with ‘abnormal body shape’, ‘chubby’, ‘beer belly’, ‘obese’, ‘too thin’, ‘ugly facial looks’, ‘disformatted faces’, 'missing teeth’, ‘too many wrinkles’, ‘slums’, ‘dilapidated housing’, ‘cracked walls’, ‘extremely dirty and messy rooms’. This explains why mostly white or conventionally good-looking teenagers from middle to upper middle class families shot to fame on the platform in the US. “‘Constant exposure to altered images can lead to an unhealthy pressure to achieve unrealistic body types…’ says Matthew Schulman, a plastic surgeon in New York. ‘Patients have been coming in with Snapchat filtered selfies to show what they want done to their body.’”
Many images that are posted on social and digital media are heavily edited – from giving the skin a golden glow, reshaping the body, drawing on abs and face tuning. While an individual does possess the freedom of choice to do so, it is imperative to gauge the extent of the impact such images have on their audience. Across all popular social media platforms, over 70% of the users/audience are people in their teens and early 20s. These are people who are going through puberty, facing insecurity in the way their body is growing, dealing with peer pressure among many other changes. These are individuals who are more likely to want to conform to what seems like the ideal physical appearance. These are individuals who really are influenced by influencers.
When 16-year-old Kylie Jenner got lip fillers for the first time, subsequent years saw an increase in teenagers getting lip fillers, especially when people realised that it wasn’t Kylie cosmetics lipsticks doing the trick, on top of the ‘Kylie Jenner lip challenge’. When 21-year-old James Charles gets botox – something he often talks about in his Instagram stories and even records himself at his appointments – it sends the message that it’s not just yesteryear Hollywood divas that favour botox, young adults need botox to look flawless too.
However, none of these procedures are exactly affordable. A gym membership isn’t free, a personal trainer isn’t free, a nutritionist isn’t free, even the FaceTune app isn’t free. This creates another barrier which allots ideal beauty to the upper classes. In the absence of the means and resources to be able to afford any of these, people turn to hacks and tricks that usually either don’t work and/or aren’t safe – because without a personal trainer and probably some surgeries, it’s not probable you’ll end up with a sucked in tummy and thin arms with enhanced curves elsewhere.
The body dysmorphia caused by these greatly influential factors is exacerbated by the diet culture prevalent in our society, and vice versa.
“Weight stigma is so firmly entrenched in our culture that even healthcare professionals often substitute fatphobia for actual diagnoses, and substitute diets for the evidence-based interventions that a thin person with the same health issues would receive.”
In ‘Recognising and Resisting Diet Culture’, Ragen Chastian, an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), writes about how diet culture conflates size and health and pathologises bigger body sizes. It allows food the sole purpose of body size manipulation while neglecting its uses for nourishment, celebration or emotional eating. Chastian explains how diet culture suggests that a person’s body size determines their worth by stigmatising bigger bodies. It creates thin privilege by expecting individuals to alter their bodies rather than creating an environment that encourages everything from public transportation, theme park rides, theatres and hospital waiting rooms to accommodate fat bodies and accords movement and exercise a punitive or preventive role instead of letting it be a fun task or personal goal. It also views fat people as less valuable and more riskable by suggesting bariatric surgery (stomach amputation or binding) or diet drugs to fat people while giving evidence-based interventions to thin people with the same health problems.
Diet culture, more often than not, increases body insecurity and promotes eating disorders. That coupled with its heavy propagation via social media is almost deadly. Healthcare professionals have often been known to direct patients with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), eating disorders and who wish to lose weight to steer clear of social media. Social media influencers – like athletes, celebrities, ‘flawless and perfect looking’ individuals – always seem to be on top of the newest trends in ‘healthy living’ and are often pioneers for a few of them. These diet fads and workout regimens become extremely popular as people desire to replicate its supposed results as seen on their favourite influencers or bodies they covet. But these don’t always work because no one diet or workout regimen can have the same universal impact on a diverse set of bodies. Moreover, these fads and regimens often demand people to ‘work hard’ and ‘be patient’ thereby insinuating that your inability to gain the desired results is your fault alone. But that is not the case. A University of Glasgow health researchers’ study examined the United Kingdom’s nine most popular social media influencers to determine if there was any accuracy to their health or weight loss content… Only one [of the nine] provided accurate and trustworthy information. [This influencer] was the only registered nutritionist with a degree of the lot.” Moreover, celebrities’ obsession with clean eating has led to Orthorexia – a new eating disorder centred around an obsession with health, wellness and eating ‘clean’ – in their followers who don’t have access to proper nutrition monitoring mechanisms. The diversification of foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘healthy’ and ‘dirty’ “inserts morality into what you eat” and incorporating fatty or processed foods into your lifestyle and diet “can somehow indicate that you lack the willpower or character to make good choices.”
It’s true that many influencers may not be trying to misinform people on purpose. However, it is important to call out those who popularise and promote trends they themselves don’t practice/participate in regularly, or insinuate lack of character strength in not being able to eliminate things like sugar from one's diet. We also need to hold accountable these same people who promote happiness as a result of looking or eating a certain way, encourage you to be your ‘best you’ but then also impose their ideas of what your ‘best you’ is, and shame ‘big’ and ‘flat’ body types. This way, at least a few – if not all – of their followers will be dissuaded from engaging with the false reality that they have created and continue to perpetuate. Social media and social media influencers have power and platform that can be used to reiterate body neutrality, point out the flaws in diet culture and redirect individuals to healthcare professionals – and while it’s completely their prerogative what they choose to talk about, it is also their responsibility to not trigger body anxiety in the thousands and millions who may come cross their profile.