Experts say this kind of selfie could be triggering eating disorders.

Image: iStock

If there’s one thing the internet isn’t short on, it’s selfies.

Although they can be irritating to scroll through en masse, these photos are usually quite innocuous – a fun way to capture a fleeting moment or mood. However, there’s one breed of selfie that has eating disorder experts increasingly concerned.

In a Huffington Post report this week, a UK specialist explained that selfies documenting weight loss progress could be contributing to eating disorders, especially when they’re shared among people who suffer from, or are at risk of developing, these illnesses.

“Some people will take repeated pictures of themselves at various stages of their illness, and send them to others,” Dr Alex Yellowlees, a consulting psychiatrist for the Priory Group, said.

The incredibly common eating disorder that nobody has heard of.

“They want to keep a record of their illness and see for themselves, as it were, the progress they think they are making towards anorexia, but they will also transmit the images to other sufferers on occasions.”

According to Dr Yellowlees, the competitive nature of these images, and the judgement they invite from others, can create psychological pressures that exacerbate eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa.

Christine Morgan, CEO of the Butterfly Foundation, agrees these so-called “skinny selfies” can have damaging effects on people, depending on their attitude to their own body.

“Selfies focusing on body shape and size imagery can drag some people backwards, and I worry it may be reinforcing that size and shape still matter,” she says. “When a person has negative thoughts and feelings about his or her body, body dissatisfaction can develop and sometimes lead to an eating disorder.”

This imagery can also be triggering for people struggling to overcome illnesses like Anorexia or Bulimia, Ms Morgan adds.

"Posting selfies of the body can be problematic because those in recovery from an eating disorder are encouraged to change their size, shape and the physicality of the body."

Although the internet's many social platforms are home to positive support communities and messages surrounding mental illness, Ms Morgan says they're also used in ways that can have "immediate and devastating impacts" on vulnerable people. Selfie dieting "diaries" are just one aspect of behaviour; images promoting thinspiration (a portmanteau for 'thin inspiration') messages and mantras are equally concerning.


“How my teenage sister’s anorexia affected me”

"Dangerous photos, images and information ... can cause individuals with a negative body image to descend even further, and lead them to believe that their success or acceptance is dependent on having a particular body shape and size," Ms Morgan explains.

You may be aware that in recent years, there's been a crackdown on thinspo and "pro-ana" and "pro-mia" websites and social media pages, which often serve as hubs for people with eating disorders to share their weight loss progress and dieting advice.

As a result of pressure from users and eating disorder associations, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft are some of the major companies that have worked to delete, ban and discourage this kind of content. Unfortunately, their efforts haven't always been successful - without hashtags it can be difficult to identify and moderate thinspo images and posts as they go live.

“These sites are definitely still active. They may not as prevalent as they were, but they are still an active form of communication," Yellowlees tells the Huffington Post.

“I used to work out to the point of injury or fatigue – here’s how I overcame it”

Considering how much time young women and men spend on social media platforms and the net more generally, this is alarming; particularly as body image is the top concern for people under the age of 25 here in Australia.

"Since the advent of social media the pressure to look a certain way has increased dramatically. For teenage girls, body image and weight are now portrayed as very important issues in their lives, making a young girl believe that she must be thin, rather than healthy," Christine Morgan says.

"We live in an image saturated world where we are all visually literate. [Images promoting weight loss] can be dangerous when they normalise unrealistic and unattainable bodies and shapes."

Have online images ever impacted the way you feel about your body?

For free help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation's National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or at [email protected]