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From Selfie to Self-Absorbed: How Social Media Can Mislead Us

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There's an alarming rate of self-promotion, narcissism, and deep-rooted desire for validation through social media. The self-proclaimed novice "physique competitors" and "women empowering coaches" and "lifestyle consultants" seem to unknowingly promote narcissism and false positives of the human body. And the millions of millennials and those even younger have distorted the way we perceive our own bodies by promoting these misleading posts.

For men, it's the selfies and the self-promotion of their body attempting to demonstrate their hard work, usually accompanied by cliche hashtags such as #fit4life or #gohard or #noexcuses. Sometimes it's a late Sunday night post attempting to boast their magnificence with an image of their flexing body in front of a mirror at the gym. The caption underneath it somehow alludes to a quasi-motivational speech to a rant about how lazy people are who don't workout late on Sunday night. Apparently exercising very late when nobody else does is the secret to achieving such physique. Other times it's shirtless posts showing us how superficial one can truly be. Sadly this ADHD-plagued generation cannot see the obvious.

There's nothing wrong with a late night workout. Nor is there anything wrong with telling somebody to exercise at night. What's fundamentally wrong here is the notion that we feel we need to broadcast this piece of news to the world in a lousy method of attempting to bring dire attention to oneself. That's called narcissism. What about taking selfies and posts of more mundane times of the day -- such as a 4pm workout on a Tuesday afternoon. Perhaps the man who didn't workout late Sunday night actually happened to workout at 4pm and didn't boast about his accomplishments, but has just a good a physique and happens to not have much of a social media presence.

What's inherently wrong here -- as is with most of the self-proclaimed novice "physique competitor" superstars of Instagram -- is that no physique is good enough. No body is good enough. Narcissists want to and strive to be better than every other man. But trying to be better than everybody else is a fundamentally insolvent notion. You'll quickly realize that you can't be better than everybody in the world. If trying to be better than every single human in this world is the source of which you try to draw happiness, then there will be no scenario for which you will truly be happy.

Here's what we know about men and selfies based on our understanding from published research so far: Men posting numerous selfies is related to both higher narcissism and psychopathy.¹ Both narcissism and self-objectification are associated with spending more time on photo-editing social networking sites.

This does come with caution since the study (alongside others not referenced) notes that those who post more selfies also post more pictures in general. Just because somebody posts many selfies doesn't mean he is a narcissist -- correlation doesn't usually result in causation. We have to recognize that there are different sides of narcissism at different levels. Psychologists know narcissism is not just a single trait, but a convergence of several related qualities.

This means there's more than just narcissism going on with men on social media. This lends itself to another topic for another time and place in psychoanalysis. Could it be people who post selfies were not loved as a child or given an approving tap on the back by their coach after a home-run in Little League baseball? I don't know the answers to those questions, but it's worth raising this issue when the majority of social media posts are superficial self-promotion.

In coaching, I've always said the world's best coaches happen to be the world's worst marketers -- that you'd be hard-pressed to know who they are because the successful ones generally don't like the spotlight or social media fame. This is not an absolute, but quite apparent in the coaching world. I understand that an honest, efficient, and unbiased approach to fitness is often hard in an ego-driven industry marred with widespread use of myth and deception -- especially at the social media level with photo-alteration and the ability to snap 60 different pictures with a smartphone only to post the best one. I get that it is the "hard work" that is on display in attempting to motivate others who seek an impeccable physique, but I would suggest a more self-effacing approach probably wouldn't hurt and do more good.

Women aren't without their issues either. The trend is arguably more bothersome than men. I've grown weary of the "body positive" posts that are actually just veiled self-criticism.

You know the ones where they say "I could complain about my stretch marks, my cellulite, my pale skin, my C-section scar, and my thighs, but I'm not going to do that because I'm being positive."

You know exactly who these people are on social media. These are the self-proclaimed "lifestyle consultants" and "women empowering coaches" who seem to have thousands upon thousands of followers for traveling the world and showing selfies (and butt-cheeks) and misguided posts about how much they don't miss their former rock-hard physique from five-years ago and how they are okay with their current body after pregnancy or not exercising as much.

But that's not the point here. The point isn't to tell you to go back to having a rock-hard physique. It's great to see women empowered and accepting of their bodies no matter the shape or size. In fact some curves on a woman should be seen as a good thing and never a flaw. What's bothersome here is these posts are knowingly deceitful in claiming they are okay with their current body, but clearly not and using these posts to for validation and self-approval.

If somebody is truly honest and okay with the body (e.g. stretch marks from having a baby, cellulite as one ages, slightly more bodyfat, etc.) then there comes a responsibility to own up and actually be okay with it. Claiming how much you're okay with it, but turning around and posting half-naked Kardashian-like images in the bathroom - especially if claiming to be a "lifestyle coach" or "women's empowering coach" -- defeats the purpose. The fact that the flaw is even brought up to begin with demonstrates the unwillingness to accept some extra curves or cellulite in the body -- things that are otherwise completely harmless and okay especially in other parts of the world.

The problem here is that these women are reluctantly accepting themselves (as opposed to owning up and truly accepting oneself without talking about it on social media) in ill-conceived posts by drawing attention to the perceived flaws -- which in turn perpetuates the concept that we can even have flaws. Women who post this way on social media -- usually in indirect ways such as an excessive butt-cheek post (a la Kylie Jenner) while spending 12 unrelated paragraphs explaining what a bad day it's been -- are teaching others to see flaws in themselves. When we see flaws we can choose to ignore them or talk about them differently. We graduate to this level when we stop seeing them at all, stop talking about them, stop seeing another person's beauty as a threat to our own, and stop any kind of assumption that a "beach body" is anything more than a human being at the beach independent of shape and size. To this degree of thinking, there is no such thing as a flaw.

Be very aware on social media of false body-positive posts that are laced with complaint or lacking honest love for the body no matter shape or size. This is not positivity, it's a deep-seated desire for validation & approval. Our bodies are always changing no matter how hard or how little we work on it -- sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse. The sooner you learn to love it, appreciate it, and not broadcast it to the world on social media -- the sooner you'll be at peace and not feel the need to prove or disprove something -- no matter what shape or size you're in or the flaws you may have. Everybody is beautiful. As cliché as this gets, we need to learn to love ourselves first before we love others.


If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.