by Christin Bowman
*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement
Confession: Facebook is a big part of my life. I was actually one of the first people to sign up for an account in 2004, and I haven’t looked back since. For a long time, Facebook felt like a warm, cozy living room where my friends and family could meet and stay connected. I would eagerly upload pictures from my latest trip or adventure, caption them with something clever, and tag my loved ones. I would pour over the pictures my friends and family posted, and would obsessively inspect any pictures they tagged of me.
Slowly, though, I started to notice something was wrong. Very wrong. Facebook was making me a nervous wreck.
Rather than that warm and fuzzy feeling of community, I started feeling hurt and insecure. More often than not, looking at pictures of my friends doing things without me gave me intense FOMO. Why didn’t they invite me? Don’t they like me anymore? If I posted pictures of myself or my life, I was consumed with the number of likes and comments my pictures received. No one liked this picture – they must think I’m [insert terrible thing here]. I also noticed that I was a little too invested in how I looked in pictures, and how my friends looked in pictures. I would feel embarrassed if I thought I looked silly in a picture (Quick! Untag before anyone notices!), and I would feel jealous if I saw a picture of a friend or acquaintance looking amazing. At times it seemed that Facebook was doing more harm than good in my life.
All that obsessing over what I looked like on Facebook made me wonder: Do other people feel this way about Facebook? Is it possible that self-objectification plays a role in how rotten I felt?
Researchers Evelyn Meier and James Gray wondered the same thing. They conducted a study with adolescent girls to find out whether there’s a relationship between spending a lot of time on Facebook doing appearance-focused things (like looking at pictures and posting pictures) and bad outcomes like weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification. The girls in the study filled out a survey about how often they use certain appearance-focused Facebook features (e.g. updating a profile picture, posting a photo, looking at friends’ photos, untagging yourself in friends’ photos), and they also filled out scales designed to measure weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification.
As it turns out, I’m not alone. The researchers found that the more often the girls reported using the appearance-focused Facebook features, the higher their weight dissatisfaction and the more they self-objectified. In other words, girls were more likely to feel bad about their weight and to look at themselves as objects if they spent more time on Facebook doing appearance-related stuff.
I don’t know about you, but all of this really rings true for me. I was feeling so bad about myself because of my obsession with Facebook pictures, but I also somehow felt addicted to it, and didn’t know what to do.
So about a year ago, I decided to try something: I stopped posting pictures of myself on Facebook. Let me tell you – it wasn’t easy. I had been so caught up in being my own worst critic and basing my self-worth on how other people responded to me. But I knew it had to stop. So one day, I just did it – I made myself quit posting pictures cold turkey. And do you know what happened?
I started to feel better.
Not right away, of course. At first it was like going through withdrawal. I craved the attention I had gotten from posting things. But slowly, day by day, week by week, it started to get easier. I stopped worrying so much about other people’s validation. If I was feeling good about myself for some reason, I didn’t have to worry that sharing that information on Facebook would somehow redefine that good feeling for me.
And I started noticing something else, too. Everyone around me suddenly seemed irrationally addicted to their phones and posting pictures on Facebook (side note: I think Instagram and Snapchat have burst on to the scene in a similar way). While having brunch with my friends, I would look around the table and notice people snapping pics of their food or of themselves and then posting them right away to Facebook or Instagram. It felt like everyone around me was more concerned with how their lives looked online, than how it felt to actually live them.
And what’s curious about that is it’s exactly what self-objectification is all about. Self-objectification happens when we think a lot about how we look to others – we actually look at ourselves from an outsider point of view – rather than focusing on how we feel on the inside. The authors of this study found that when we spend so much time on Facebook and focus on the way our lives look we objectify ourselves. After all, I had been so concerned with my appearance on Facebook that I started to forget how I actually felt.
Since quitting my picture posting, I’ve noticed a huge change in the way my life feels. I will often go entire meals with friends without even looking at my phone (CRAZY, I know). I don’t take selfies on the regular or broadcast my experiences. I’ll still take pictures of the things I do or the places I go, but now I’ll share those pictures with my friends and family via email or text. And I admit, since my initial boycott, I’ve posted a picture of myself on Facebook here and there too (even though I continue to get anxious about those pics I post).
But what is most exciting about this personal experiment is that I am so much more present during my life experiences than I used to be. Rather than making sure to get a good shot of my food or a flattering selfie with my friend, I use my mental energy to live those experiences in the moment. I admire my food, and then dig right in and let my mouth explode with the flavors. I look my friends in the eyes and laugh and love with them – no documentation required. And nowadays, instead of having to make sure those experiences are properly reflected on my Facebook page, I smile to myself remembering the fun I had, and then move on to the next adventure, trying my best to experience my way through.
 Meier, E. P., & Gray, J. (2014). Facebook photo activity associated with body image disturbance in adolescent girls. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(4), 199-206.