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Facebook: The encyclopedia of beauty?

One day last year, Amanda Coleman decided to quit Facebook.

It wasn’t one precipitating event that led her to her decision, but a slow build — a series of disturbing, sometimes anguished conversations.
Coleman, a college student and the president of her sorority, found herself spending a lot of time counseling young girls, many of them freshman at the university.

“They would call or come in to see me for advice, crying that they were stressed out,” she said.

As it turned out, the insecurities that bedeviled the girls were often fueled by social networking sites.

“At some point I began noticing that Facebook was being mentioned in some way in just about every conversation.”
She said the girls knew they were in college to study, but they were spending hours on the computer, obsessing over photos and status updates, and comparing themselves to their friends and their friends’ friends.

What’s changed?

Before social networks, we mostly had images of impossibly perfect celebrities. We would pass these images on billboards, watch them on TV, flip through them in magazines, but we weren’t sitting around staring at them for hours every day.
“And, you know, at some level we all knew these were models and celebs, so maybe it was different somehow, more fictional and unattainable,” said Coleman.

Because of social networks, though, the field of competition has expanded dramatically. Now you’re competing with the best pictures and the ebullient status updates of every girl you know.

“It’s as if somewhere along the line, Facebook became the encyclopedia of beauty and status and comparisons.”

It didn’t stop there. Among some of Coleman’s girls, the constant self-comparisons and escalating insecurities translated into a pattern of food deprivation and incessant exercise.

“They were walking around saying, ‘I’m not good enough. I’m not enough this or that.’ And I guess what they had the most control over was their weight.”

That’s when the other, more pernicious social networks came into the picture. Some of the girls in Coleman’s sorority began frequenting pro-eating-disorder communities online, where users encourage one another in anorexic and bulimic behavior. Most of these sites, open to all, offer “thinspiration” (or “thinspo”) — photographs of emaciated celebrities and models, and before-and-after shots of girls-next-door, meant to serve as motivation on the quest for skin and bones.

“It was like this slippery slope from regular social networking sites to the eating disorder ones,” said Coleman.
She also found that the feelings of insecurity were oddly contagious, even spreading among groups of friends who normally had a healthy body image.

“Social networking sites are part of the ubiquitous media landscape that shapes what children come to know as society’s body ideal,” observed Dina Borzekowski, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who specializes in children, media and health.

“Social media may have a stronger impact on children’s body images than traditional media. Messages and images are more targeted; if the message comes from a ‘friend,’ it is perceived as more credible and meaningful.”


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