Selfies ‘could be damaging to women at risk of eating disorders’

Selfies are popular on social media (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Selfies are popular on social media (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) Selfies are popular on social media (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Social media selfies could have a “more powerful influence” on a woman’s body satisfaction and the risk of developing an eating disorder if judged in different ways from other pictures, a study has suggested.

It comes after researchers found women were perceived as slimmer in selfies than in photographs taken from other angles.

How a person judges someone’s body shape online could also be related to how they perceive images on social media and how they feel about their own body, researchers said.

The study, by Ruth Knight, of York St John University and Catherine Preston, of the University of York, used photos of 10 female volunteer models dressed in active wear.

They had a range of body shapes and body mass indexes (BMIs) ranging from 18.5 to 30.6.

Their faces were excluded from the pictures, which were taken in the same pose from a number of different angles.

These included a traditional portrait, as well as a selfie taken from arm’s length, a selfie taken using a selfie stick, and one from the volunteer’s own perspective, with the camera looking down from the chin.

Researchers carried out four experiments in which a total of 272 people judged the photos.

They were also asked to complete a questionnaire on disordered eating.

Those in the study judged the models to be slimmer in selfies than in the traditional portrait photos, while pictures taken from the chin down were deemed the least slim and least attractive.

People with a higher level of disordered eating symptoms also rated bodies in the selfies more favourably.

Researchers said this might suggest that looking at selfies could be more damaging than other photos on social media for people who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders.

The paper, published in the journal Plos One, said: “It seems being exposed to appearance-related images on social media platforms such as Instagram has a detrimental effect on body satisfaction, and is linked to disordered eating, particularly among women.

“The precise mechanisms of this relationship are not clear, but the effect may be related to making more upward social comparisons when viewing bodies that are deemed more attractive than the viewer’s own body.”

It added that there is “no research available” exploring the specific kinds of social media image – such as selfies – on body satisfaction and disordered eating, but said if selfies are judged in different ways from other images they could have a “more powerful influence”.

The researchers said the findings could reflect the links between social media use and body dissatisfaction.

“Many of us see selfies every day as we browse the growing number of social media platforms,” the study authors said.

“We know that filters can change the way that bodies appear. This research suggests that the angle from which the photo is taken can change our judgments about body size so that, when consuming images on the internet, even simple unfiltered selfies, what we see is not necessarily an accurate representation of real life.”

There were some limitations to the study, including the fact that the angles of the photos taken by each model were not precisely matched, researchers added.

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at eating disorder charity Beat, said: “Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses.

“While some people do experience negative thoughts about their body as part of their eating disorder, people wouldn’t develop an eating disorder just by looking at selfies online.

“We welcome more research into the relationship between body image and eating disorders and would like to reassure people that recovery is possible.”