Empowering and educating young people in dealing with media messaging
The more I speak out about my lived experience journey the more I recognise it can’t be neatly summarised, it isn’t linear and as ‘journey’ suggests, it isn’t 100% over… and that’s ok.
As a teenager, I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa and retrospectively I can acknowledge the support I received was largely focussed on resolving the physical symptoms, while neglecting to acknowledge any underlying cause or the impacts I felt as my body changed (read: became healthy again).
The absence of any psychological support left me with an empty tool kit, which quickly became filled with unhelpful self-created coping strategies and a new, more covert diagnosis: Bulimia. I’m told this metamorphosis is quite common and from experience, I can acknowledge how alarmingly easy to hide from the public, given most people maintain a healthy BMI range.
You can become a prisoner to your own thoughts and behaviours which is a really vulnerable space to sit in without any external supports. It took me years to push through the anxiety, shame and guilt in order to reach out and ask for help.
The impact of the media
Social media and the online world in the way we know it today wasn’t a thing when I was growing up! I recall getting a Facebook account when I was 18, but I remember thinking it paled in comparison to MySpace at the time!
I remember feeling a sense of discomfort and alienation as a teen reading magazines back then (Dolly, Girlfriend, Cleo, Cosmo). Magazines of that time were extremely one-note and offered a homogenous representation of societal standards for women: skinny, white, straight, able-bodied, confident. It’s so harmful to many groups who don’t fit this archetype.
Retrospectively, I think my sense of self was squashed from discovery due to consuming so much of this type of media noise. It falsely lead me to believe that the entirety of my self-worth and success was wrapped up in how I looked. I think perhaps in response I did what I could to control the parts I could change (such as my weight) when I was grappling with other parts of my identity that would never fit these societal expectations.
How can we support the mental health of young people, especially those that may be spending more time on social media?
There seems to be a lot of noise in this area right now.
Rather than spotlight online platforms for their navigation of these incredibly complex issues, I’d say that if we had more adequate investment in access to early intervention supports, more adequate sex and relationships education in schools, and a stronger and culturally safe social model of care, perhaps these perceived vulnerabilities wouldn’t be as concerning.
Of course, online platforms create opportunities for vulnerabilities to play out: such as bullying, trolling and the profiling of young people. In the same breath though, I believe when used correctly online platforms can play a really positive role, particularly when it comes to uniting marginalised communities who might otherwise experience exclusion, and connecting people with shared experiences in a way that can build a person’s identity, social network, and overall confidence.
It took me years of ‘doom-scrolling’ before I began to recognise the potential effects certain content can have on my daily mental health – and I’m an adult!
This is a bit of a wild card, but how cool would it be if the platforms where this alleged harmful messaging plays out invested in workshops and training for young people to teach them healthy habits and critical thinking when choosing your online following?
I don’t know that we’ll ever eliminate all the content that makes us feel vulnerable to certain thinking or behaviours (because we all have different triggers!) but reinforcing messages about the benefits of diversifying your social media accounts might help to turn down the volume on that occasional post that previously might have caused a spiral.
What are your thoughts on influencer culture – particularly for teenagers engaging on social media platforms?
I think if a person is getting the majority of their information and influence from these platforms this has potential to be really toxic – and I believe influencers can also be swept up in this collateral! No one is immune to unhealthy or unrealistic messaging.
We’re really in need of a new narrative and a systemic rewiring of the unconscious valuing of certain body types, as well as a separation of body and worth more broadly. There’s great influencers out there, such as those promoting the health at every size (HAES) model and anti-diet culture, but the unfortunate reality is that influencers are often slim, white and western and the temptation to (whether consciously or unconsciously) profit off someone else’s insecurities is still strong.
The knowledge that this type of messaging can be accessed 24/7 and normalises the standards that can exacerbate bullying, poor mental health, and eating disorders highlights how urgent these kinds of conversations are needed.
What advice would you give families and friends of those struggling with an eating disorder or body image concern?
When you’re in the storm of an ED, making the shift from trusting your own thoughts and choosing instead to trust others intentions is so difficult. Be patient. Be gentle.
As a care giver, I don’t think you have to understand everything, but it’s helpful to accept where someone is at each day and work with that version, without frustration or interrogation. EDs can feel more shameful than other mental illnesses, and recovery can feel an incredibly insurmountable thing to achieve. It isn’t linear and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ blueprint.
Creating a safe space to talk and slowly build trust can really help though. I think recovery isn’t something you conquer but more a journey and decision to continue to stay well. That’s why knowing who you can talk to, and cementing your support network is so important to the longevity of staying well.