Social media, body image and how art therapy helps kids with eating disorders

A study at The University of Pittsburgh found that participants who most frequently checked social media throughout the day had 2.6 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns compared with those who checked least frequently.  Social media, or media in general, do not cause an eating disorder, but research shows they can influence a person’s dissatisfaction, eating patterns and self-image.

28-year-old Erin Fuller started dealing with an eating disorder as a girl, long before social media became popular, and she knows there are many factors that influence her own body image.  She got treatment for an eating disorder at The Renfrew Center in Philadelphia a couple years ago, and there’s now an affiliated center in Pittsburgh in Oakland.

In the hallways of The Renfrew Center in Oakland, Fuller displays the art she made while she was in residential treatment for her eating disorder.  There’s the symbolic mask she wore, the words that sounded in her head and her body as an expression of her illness, all in the artwork on the walls.

“Art therapy was something that changed my life,” Erin says.  Erin’s art therapist, Sondra Rosenberg, helped Erin in her treatment at The Renfrew Center.  Erin was at Pitt, studying to be a therapist herself, when she realized she needed to get help after leaving class to deal with her eating disorder.  “I went back to class and thought, ‘I can’t do this. If i’m going to be a therapist, I have to get my stuff together,'” she said.

At Renfrew, Erin painted, drew and created with all kinds of media, encouraged by the prompts from Sondra, and then shared those images with the group.  She created what’s called an “altered book”, taking a normal book and changing the pages with what are now expressions of Erin’s fears, feelings and affirmations.

“One of the major functions of an eating disorder is it gives someone a way to communicate and organize their experience in a way that makes sense to them.  And art actually does the same thing but in a way other people can understand,” Sondra explains.

Erin now counsels others, including some  with eating disorders.  She’s conscious of how she interprets social media posts now that she’s been through treatment.  “When I left Renfrew, I deleted a lot of people. I unfollowed a lot of people. If it’s someone I knew, I didn’t need to look at your highlight reel.  You’re not in Bora Bora every day,” Erin says.

She knows that social media can influence a person’s body image, and she’s using it to help in her own healthy image of herself.  “What I’ve been doing is taking a picture of myself and where I would think, ‘You don’t look that good’, and I would post it and say, ‘This picture is fine.  You are beautiful.  You are enough,'” Erin explains.

Through her art, her education as a therapist and her new self-image,  Erin’s goal is to encourage others to get professional help if they suffer from an eating disorder.  She says, “If I could help one person, or inspire one person to seek treatment, that is worth my vulnerability.”

As for time on social media, young people are using it more than ever. Another study found that just 30 minutes on Instagram can make females fixate on their weight and appearance in a negative way, reminding us how it’s important to be aware of how social media is affecting young people.