By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS
Since the rise to fame of the Kardashian family, and Kim Kardashian especially, we have been given a new term – Insta-famous. Using the social media app Instagram, individuals like the Kardashians no longer rely on Hollywood or the music industry to become famous. It’s all about how much sex appeal you can generate and how far you can take your body image extremism. The result is a generation driven to one-up each other via eating disorders and plastic surgery. It’s frightening.
Stories I’ve come across include 18-year-old daughters whose mothers are paying for their first Brazilian butt lifts and breast augmentations, young men approaching the largest guy in the gym for steroids, and individuals feeling so awful about their bodies they turn to near-instantaneous anorexia. The hope for many looking to be Insta-famous is to feel loved, appreciated, and celebrated, often because they have experienced bullying, trauma, neglect and have underlying mental health issues as well.
The measure of success is tangible from likes, follows, re-posts, and even money generated by sponsors of that person’s page. Each piece of positive feedback produces a dopamine hit that becomes near addictive. “I have made it!” is a common euphoric statement when they reach each new milestone of total likes and followers.
What keeps them working so hard on this new fame is the fear of bullying and trolling by those following them. There’s pressure to keep coming up with new shots, poses, enhancements, and Photoshop tricks. The pressure to augment their body also rises. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, requests for butt lifts has increased over 135% since 2012 while tummy tucks have increased over 100% since 2000. We are a society ever more in hate with our bodies and find it hard to stop the eating disorder behaviors, steroid abuses, compulsive workouts, and plastic surgeries.
The repercussions are lengthy and horrifying from toxic shock, blood clots, stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, liver failure, blood poisoning, infection, and death. But beyond the physical, the emotional toll is just as horrible with increased depression, anxiety, social isolation, and suicide.
The sad fact is the behavior continues because these individuals also report enjoying the process of seeking out new ways to enhance their images on Instagram. They take risks such as low-cost hotel room gel implants provided by unlicensed individuals to street hustlers offering stimulants to reduce hunger or opiates to eliminate pain from compulsive exercise. Feelings of shame, guilt, and loss of their actual identity are not enough to dissuade them from these pursuits – at least not without clinical supports.
Prevention is our best first step by teaching everyone how to be media savvy and that everyone is susceptible to negative body image, not just females. While there is nothing sinister about Instagram, there is clinical evidence that those who spend hours a day invested in following and liking content become less happy about themselves and their body, and develop worsening depression and anxiety. Worse yet, they turn to self-destructive behaviors to meet these unrealistic expectations.
If you are worried about a loved one, it’s appropriate to intervene and find resources for care.