From social media to celebrity culture: why comparison is so dangerous for your self-esteem

From social media to celebrity culture: why comparison is so dangerous for your self-esteem

Imagine a world where we weren’t taught that how we looked was our most important asset and how we looked had to be thin. Photo / Getty

Comparison always leads to self-criticism, says author Alex Light in this excerpt from her book You are not a pre-image.

I think all of us have wished at some point that we looked like someone else – whether it’s a friend, a colleague, a model or a celebrity.

Body comparison can often be very debilitating, especially for people with body image dissatisfaction. This is something I’ve struggled with my whole life: I’ve compared my body to almost every single woman I’ve ever seen – in real life, in magazines, on screen or on social media.

When I was in college, my friend introduced me to a website that listed the weights of virtually every person who is in the public eye and has ever been.

I knew deep down that it wouldn’t be helpful (or true – where did this information come from?), but I was still hooked: my own weight firmly at the forefront of my mind, I would spend hours trying to to look the site looking for celebrities who weighed the same as or less than me.

The compulsion to do so was multifaceted: my body dysmorphia meant that I really had no idea what I looked like and I desperately tried to seek clarity through comparison; I looked for reassurance that my current size was acceptable (I thought that if celebrities weighed a similar amount to me, that would mean it was good) and I used people with lower weights than me as “motivation”.

Looking back, I feel so sad for that young girl, so lacking in self-validation that I desperately sought approval through weight comparisons with celebrities.

I know I was not alone in this; I talk to so many people who feel trapped in body comparison and plagued by feelings of crushing inadequacy. It wouldn’t be so common if a standard of beauty didn’t exist.

Imagine a world where we weren’t taught that how we looked was our most important asset and how we looked had to be thin. . . A world where no body shape or size was valued above any other, where all appearance was just neutral: the concept of measuring would just not be relevant, as there would be nothing to ‘measure’ against.

But we don’t. We live in a world where, as we know, the standard of beauty is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our culture and is therefore a collective priority.

This is compounded by the fact that comparison is very much a fixed human tendency and evolutionary trait.

As social animals, in our past, fitting in with the collective was important to an individual’s survival.

“Comparison has always served us well as a way of judging how safe we ​​were, so that we could make good decisions and survive: for example, as we evolved into human civilizations, we might compare our detection skills to another member of the hunting helps us assess where we may need to sharpen our skills to remain a valued member of our collective,” says Lucy Sheridan, the Comparison Coach.

So, while initially helpful, Sheridan explains that comparing ourselves to others has turned into more of a compulsion, due to a variety of factors now inherent in our habits and society.

“From the moment you are born, your size and weight are recorded and mapped against other babies. Then, as you progress through younger years, learning and developmental milestones are tracked against others.”

The feedback loop of our parents, teachers, caregivers and other adults of influence then begins to play a role and this confirms our tendency to evaluate ourselves against those around us.

Then, as we learn the importance of our appearance in society, we become aware of advertisements featuring airbrushed models and celebrities with unattainable bodies that are widely considered “beautiful.”

We also hear our parents or trusted adults talk down about their own bodies and examine the ways in which they don’t match what they “should”, and another comparison is born.

Social media amplifies this phenomenon. Ubiquitous, loud and packed with everyone’s best sides, it is a veritable breeding ground for comparison, offering frequent and ample opportunity to feel that we fall short.

We lose sight of the fact that we are taking a deliberately curated, filtered and edited one-dimensional view of someone’s entire life, which is dangerous.

It is also particularly dangerous for people with low self-esteem or who have a negative body image, because social media, with its visual nature, provides endless opportunity for women to seek out images that portray the slim ideal previously only available through traditional advertising. wash.

Comparison is a game in which there is no end because there is always someone who has more than you. And, I believe, it ties your happiness to a goal that is often very arbitrary: it doesn’t really mean anything.

You know how it goes: “I’ll be happy when I start earning this much money”, or “I’ll be happy when I get this promotion”. Yes, these are positive things, but endlessly striving for them means that you are forever looking forward to them and unable to recognize and appreciate what you have, that you can already be happy with exactly what you have now.

And – I’m sure you’ve experienced this too – there’s a very real danger that you reach the goal and, rather than feel the rush of happiness you’ve worked so long to earn, you find yourself focusing on a new goal. The cycle then continues.

By turning outward, we also end up focusing on everyone else besides ourselves – and what’s right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for us. We may find ourselves heading for things that, we may realize over time to focus on ourselves, are not really what we want.

The downsides of comparing yourself to others are plentiful and backed by science: research has found that comparison fuels feelings of envy, low self-esteem and even depression.

“For some, comparisons may cause some irritation and envy, which can be brushed under the rug but still insidiously emerge over time,” says Sheridan. “On the other end of the scale, comparisons can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism that can keep someone gripped in a state of doubt and low self-confidence.”

It can be incredibly toxic to our relationships in many different areas – like career and romance – and I’ve spoken to many of you who admit that they want to stay away from friends or family members who may be thinner than you because they make you feel inferior. It’s dark territory and it can take over your life.

While comparison to others is toxic and requires healing, we cannot forget the comparisons we make to ourselves. We often compare ourselves to our past self – “Why can’t I still be this thin?” – and an idealized version of ourselves – “Why can’t I just be better?” It’s a sinister and paralyzing comparison that feels especially frustrating because we have evidence that something is possible for us because we’ve had it before. It feels more tangible.

For years I grieved my former, thinner body. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t recreate my previous “self-control” and “motivation”.

The problem? My previous body did not depend on self-control or motivation; it was the result of an eating disorder and a lifetime of disordered eating. Yet I couldn’t register it, I was simply blinded by frustration that I knew it was possible but I couldn’t “achieve” it again.

I think we all do this in one way or another when we idolize a past version of ourselves: we forget the surrounding circumstances. Ironically, often our past selves are what hold us back from who we are now, not particularly happy people having a great time. It’s worth examining that when doubt creeps in next – don’t look back with rose colored glasses.

A good way to combat self-comparison is to reframe the negative thought; my therapist at the time, when I was struggling, taught me this.

For example, she encouraged me to consider that yes, I am thin, but I also lack energy and concentration, both of which have affected my work and life as a whole; I was unable to enjoy a social life and I was deeply unhappy.

It’s an extreme example, I know, but I promise there’s power in finding even the tiniest glimmer of positivity: if you’ve gained weight by ditching diets – well, you’ve given yourself food freedom, and it’s amazing.

Find your silver lining, hang on to it and let it comfort you when things feel tough.

You Are Not A Before Picture by Alex Light, HarperCollins, $34.99 is out now.  Photo / Provided
You Are Not A Before Picture by Alex Light, HarperCollins, $34.99 is out now. Photo / Provided

You Are Not A Before Picture by Alex Light, HarperCollins, $34.99 is out now.

Where to get help

If it is an emergency and you or someone else is in dangercall 111.

Helpline for eating disorders: 0800 2 EDANZ / 0800 2 33269

Anxiety Helpline: Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANGS)

Depression Helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or SMS 4202

For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team or counseling service. The Mental Health Foundation has more helplines and service contacts on its website at

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