Texas Tech University

Q&A: Healthy Body Image at the Holidays

Lucy Greenberg

November 23, 2022

Holiday Feasting

Doctoral candidate Sydney Brammer helps Red Raiders feel their best around the table this year.

Everyone struggles with body image issues. 

For some, the struggle is constant. 

Texas Tech University's Risk Intervention & Safety Education (RISE) focuses on wellness topics throughout the year and this month they're raising awareness about body image issues. They'll be hosting a body image tabling event at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Nov. 30) at the University Recreation Center.

In the meantime, though, we wanted to get the conversation going, especially with Thanksgiving coming up this week – a time that can be stressful when it comes to our relationship with food and family. 

Sydney Brammer
Sydney Brammer

I caught up with Sydney Brammer, a doctoral candidate in the College of Media & Communication who is studying the effect social media has on young people's body image. She particularly focuses on the cross sections of digital media, interpersonal relationships and feminism. 

Brammer sat down with me and shared tips for having a healthy relationship with our bodies. So, before you scroll Instagram for the 50th time today or sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with that hyper-critical family member, read through some of her advice! 

What got you interested in this field of study?

I have identified as a plus-size person my whole life, so I'm not coming at this from an outside perspective. I've experienced fat-phobic behaviors and the constant pressures of the thin ideal. I also was very fortunate to come from a supportive family that always encouraged me to pursue my interests and put value on many things, not just how people looked. 

I also recognize that not everyone has that support system. We all have the tendency to be hard on ourselves, so it's hard if you also have family, friends or a community that adds to that negative discourse. 

All these observations came to a head for me in high school though. I have a twin brother and we were being raised in the same home, receiving the same messages. I couldn't understand why I was so aware of some things and he was not. I wondered if it was a gendered difference and if gendered messaging also was different in media. So, that's when I got interested in studying body image at an academic level. 

Men and women can both struggle with body image issues, so can you elaborate on what you mean by gendered messages? 

So, all genders are exposed to society's version of the “ideal body.” For men, that's connected to how much muscle you have, how athletically inclined you are or how much you bench press. For women, it's related to clothing size and waist-to-hip ratio. Both ideals can be toxic, but men are judged by what they can do, while women are almost solely judged by how they look. So, there are inequities there. 

For example, if a very muscular man asks for a seatbelt extender on an airplane it's going to draw a different kind of attention than a woman who has wide-set hips. The man with muscles will be seen as more of a man, whereas the woman might be seen as less feminine because she is not ‘petite.' 

Speaking of travel, many Texas Tech students are home for Thanksgiving this week. What advice do you have for students if they are headed into a critical atmosphere? 

Going home for the holidays can be hard. Like I mentioned earlier, not everyone comes from a supportive home. It can especially be difficult for first-year students who are going home for the first time and perhaps their body has changed this semester. 

As in any interpersonal relationship, the only thing we can control is our response. If someone makes a comment about what you're eating or your body, you do not have to respond. Even if we want to respond, we oftentimes feel uncomfortable in family situations because of power dynamics. So, feel free to just redirect the conversation to another topic.  

However, if you are comfortable shutting those comments down, I would say go ahead and do that. If someone says something like, “Well, that's a big piece of pie,” you can respond by saying, “Please don't comment on what I eat,” and move on. That's easier said than done, but if you know you're going into that situation, it helps to prepare by knowing what you want to say before you're in the moment. Also have a plan for how you're going to take care of yourself after that family time.

Those are great ideas, but what if someone doesn't feel positively about themselves yet? How can they establish boundaries with others in the meantime?

I think people are often expected to jump straight into the body positivity movement, which would require you to go from feeling badly about yourself to loving yourself overnight and that's not always realistic. That's a huge leap for someone to make when they've only heard contradictory messages their whole life. So instead, look to body neutrality, which is saying “I don't have to love everything about myself today, but I don't want to hurt my body and I deserve to feel safe.”

But that also means we must be mindful of what we say to others. If you're in the habit of deflecting through humor or self-deprecation, help yourself by not opening the door for conversation about what you're eating at Thanksgiving, or any other time. You'll hear people say things like, “I had to wear my stretchy pants,” or “I need to unbutton my pants for this meal,” which is all said in a humorous way, but it's best to just not start the conversation at all. 

The bottom line is to set boundaries when and where you can, and when you're comfortable doing so; then maintain them. If you're home for a three- or four-day visit, you might need to remind people of the boundaries you set on day one again on day three or four but staying true to what you know is better for your wellbeing in the long run is worth the momentary discomfort of reminding someone we don't talk about ourselves that way.

What about family members that aren't necessarily saying negative things but can't stop talking about their diet or workout habits? That can be triggering for others not on that same journey. 

Absolutely. What I would recommend is if someone is hyper-focused on their body or health like that, you can say something like, “I'm so glad you have the energy to enjoy the things you love.” Do not comment about their body or their weight but rather on what you appreciate about their energy or character. 

You research how social media impacts our body image, specifically in adolescent girls and young women. What are some findings you've observed? Are some platforms more damaging than others? 

Two years ago, I conducted a focus group in which I asked female-identifying undergraduates about the kinds of messages they see on social media. They weren't so concerned about the platform as much as the modality of the message. For example, if they saw an image of Kim Kardashian surrounding her divorce, that had a different impact than a text-based story about her going to law school. So, visual components play a big role, and that is equally important as how frequently we see visual components. 

Another noteworthy finding were the differences in impact when visuals had disclosures regarding whether they were edited, if there was a filter, if it was an advertisement and so forth. I think it's less about the platforms and more about individual pieces of content and the frequency of content exposure a user has.

You talk about frequency, have you conducted any research on screen time exposure and its effects? 

I haven't done any quantitative research focused on screen time but there are studies out that look at screen time, especially for children. But when we're thinking about adolescents or young adults, it's different because as an adult, you should be able to manage your own screen time. So that makes it tricky because we just assume people know what their threshold is. 

When I've talked to participants about their media use, they say, “I can feel when I've been spending too much time on my phone because I start to feel down about myself.” Sometimes they categorize that as boredom and sometimes it gets categorized as something more intense, like depression. But yes, as adults we are expected to use discretion and know what's too much for us. 

However, I will point out it's less about the amount of media intake than the quality. If someone spends three hours on their phone researching topics that they're passionate about or facetiming a loved one, they will likely have a different experience than someone doom scrolling on TikTok.

Do you think most people are even aware of how they use social media? 

That's such a good question. I think the closest I've gotten to knowing about their motivations is by asking people who they follow on social media, and why. 

Oftentimes, people will say they started using social media to keep in touch with friends and family. But then they get swept up following celebrities or news outlets. So, I do think they're conscious of these two kinds of disparate categories. And I think that's how most people end up consuming media they may not have opted-in for. We start our social media usage to connect to those we know, but over time, we look up and the people we're following may be complete strangers.

For those who feel their social media consumption habits aren't working for them, I would encourage them to start cutting out some of the noise, especially figures who don't make you feel good about yourself. Try to define a goal for using social media and if you find yourself increasingly struggling with your body image, maybe go back to that goal and see if your usage is lining up with it.

Do you have any tangible suggestions for how to cut down on that noise? 

On platforms where you can, it helps to select the priority feature. For example, on Instagram, I only get notified about certain accounts. I get notifications when my close friends post because I like to see their content, and the priority feature will push that to the top of my newsfeed so there is less of a chance of me going down a rabbit hole.

Also, every couple of months I sit down and quickly go through the list of people I'm following, and I unfollow anyone I haven't interacted with in a long time. I almost always  unfollow 30 to 40 people. I highly recommend making this a practice a few times a year. Just as we spring clean our house or tidy up our physical spaces, this helps clear the clutter in our online spaces.

For more information on body image education and wellbeing, visit the RISE website or call their office at (806) 742-2110. You also can reach the National Eating Disorder Association by calling or texting (800) 931-2237. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or need immediate assistance, call the Texas Tech Crisis Helpline at (806) 742-5555.