Move Over Glossy Magazines. Now Social Media Makes Young Girls Hate Themselves.

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
March 14 2014 1:32 PM

Move Over Glossy Magazines. Now Social Media Makes Young Girls Hate Themselves.

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Mirror, mirror, on the Web.

Photo by Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

In case you were starting to feel OK about this newfangled Facebook thing, two recent studies show that the blue-and-white behemoth is ruining young girls’ self-esteem. Do you want to hear about the disordered eating first, or the increase in plastic surgery rates?

The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery recently surveyed a group of its 2,700 members and discovered that 1 in 3 doctors saw an uptick in procedure requests for 2013. The researchers attributed the rise in part to “patients being more self-aware of looks in social media.” They write that 13 percent of plastic surgeons mentioned patients who wanted procedures specifically because they didn’t like their appearance on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Selfie.im. Not surprisingly, many of these patients were teenage girls. The composite face of plastic surgery is getting younger, the researchers say, noting that 58 percent of the surveyed AAFPRS members reported an increase “in cosmetic surgery or injectables in those under 30.”

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Why would an association of plastic surgeons publicize results that show them preying on the Web-induced insecurities of vulnerable kids? Perhaps they think of themselves as heroes, able to swoop in and fix the nose that’s looking back at you from your computer screen. Or maybe they’re just honest. Either way, cosmetic surgeons are operating in a world we’ve all helped create, in which the new wave of teenage insecurity comes not from the magazine rack at CVS, but from our peers and ourselves.

In another study, researchers from Florida State University detected a link between time spent on Facebook and disordered eating patterns. They asked 960 female college students to complete a test assessing their relationship to food and weight, as well as how often they logged onto Facebook. After an association emerged between disordered eating habits and social media use, the team then swept 84 of the women into an additional experiment. Half of the participants spent 20 minutes on Facebook before retaking the food survey; the other half used that 20 minutes to research ocelots. (This is an ocelot—cute!) Again, women who had been exposed to the idealized images of themselves and their friends demonstrated more disordered thought-processes around snacking, weight, and exercise than the women who looked at fuzzy cats.

The bedtime story behind these results: Once upon a time we imbibed our unrealistic expectations for female beauty from glossies like Vogue and Elle. Today we drink them in from social sharing sites, gleamed-up corkboards we plaster with dispatches from a more perfect version of our lives. But how do you prevent kids from subjecting themselves to Facebook pressure? Prohibitions against seeking out the most flattering angle? Paper bag selfies? The problem is that insecurity has always been a self-inflicted wound, regardless of who our aspirational symbols are. The yardsticks change, but the impulse to measure and seethe and yearn (and frantically untag) remains.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.