How Facebook Boosts Our Body Image

Do we subconsciously use our status updates to bolster our self-esteem?

The new Facebook movie, The Social Network, hit theaters over the weekend, and all the hype got me thinking about the world’s favorite people-watching website. Facebook enables 500,000,000 users to connect with long-lost pals, check up on friends and family, spread news and generally wile away hours at work “liking” baby pictures when we should be filling out spreadsheets or finishing reports.

But FB does something else: It gives us a chance to show ourselves as we wish other people saw us. You can brag about personal achievements, promote your business, boast about your love life and post only your most flattering pictures. Even if you look nothing like Megan Fox, if someone snaps a pic of you in which, because of the angle and lighting and luck, you somehow resemble the Transformers sexpot, I guarantee, that’s going to be your new Facebook photo.

I often read updates that sound more or less like this:

Just ran 10 miles and am feeling awesome! I think I can see my abs! Smoothie for lunch and then off to Pilates!

I have THE BEST husband! Not only did he go to Oberweiss for me last night to get me pumpkin ice cream but he baked me chocolate chip cookies!

Sadie just said her first word: “Democrat.” She’s only seven months old! We are so proud and feel so blessed to have created the world’s smartest baby!

But I rarely see updates that admit, “Sat on my ass all day and binged on sugar cookie dough. Cellulite is multiplying by the second.” Or, “My husband sucks.” Or, “Sadie just started high school and still isn’t talking. We have had some luck getting her to communicate with a spoon but only when Billy Ray Cyrus is playing.” Similarly, no one’s about to post photos of themselves with a triple chin, spinach in their teeth or visible panty line.

The best part of all this blatant self-promotion? It’s instantaneously rewarded. Within minutes of posting, accolades start rolling in in the form of “likes” and congratulatory comments. Such positive feedback feels delicious; how can you not feel prettier, thinner, better when your best friend, your mom, your former coworker and Carrie, your fifth grade slumber party buddy whom you haven’t actually spoken to in 20 years, are all telling you, in one form or another, “You are so hot!”?

When I first joined Facebook, I didn’t fully grasp the ins and outs of social networking. I was clueless as to how my “friends” used the site; how much time people actually spent peeking at one another’s pages or poring through photo albums. So when I returned home from Thanksgiving break in 2008 -- my husband and I spent it sipping pina coladas while lying on a gorgeous beach on Mexico with his family -- I just dumped my photos onto FB, primarily to get the shots off my camera and free up space for the holiday season. A few of those pictures showed me in a bikini, but as I said, I was naïve and had no clue people actually, you know, looked.

The fallout was magical. There were generous compliments. There was fawning. Friend after friend commented on how “hot” and “radiant” I looked.  You’d almost think I had announced I was sick with some horrible disease and people were trying to cheer me up.  My ego was effectively e-stroked and any initial embarrassment I felt at having posted revealing photos of myself was quickly replaced by an instantly enhanced body image.

Of course, online bodysnarking has the potential to mar all of these feel-good electronic vibes. But there’s an easy way to avoid that: Don’t post unflattering photos or less-than-ideal updates. If someone tags you in a photo and you don’t love how you look, untag yourself (friends of mine have done this.)  Oh, and if you do post a pic of yourself in which you look less than your best -- because truthfully, looking flawless is abnormal and should not be a prerequisite for sharing bits of your life -- and someone does reply with a snarky comment, I have one newly-invented word for you: Defriend.

I don’t think most people consciously utilize Facebook as a body image balm or self-esteem booster. I don’t think we’re all super-vain narcissists who post revealing photos of ourselves and wait with baited breath for the raves to flood in -- although I’m sure these people do exist. But the promise of positive feedback is a very real motivator, and I dare anyone to claim with a straight face that they don’t smile inside when an FB friend tells them how “Hottttt!” they look in a photo.

Do you ever post pictures or news on Facebook, hoping for compliments in return? Chime in below.


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