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photo: Vivala, Instagram/hereisgina, Instagram/ddlovato
When the belly-button challenge hit the internet earlier this summer, I admit that I did it. The test sounded simple enough: You curl your arm around your back and try to touch your belly-button. Initially, I thought of this challenge like most things that go viral on the internet (i.e., planking, the ice-bucket challenge, the cinnamon challenge, the Harlem Shake) as just another craze.

The belly-button challenge began on Weibo, China’s version of Facebook, and gained fast traction once it reached the U.S., especially with young women. But writer James Hamblin shared a poignant argument when he urged readers not to participate in this challenge in an article for The Atlantic. Pointing out that these challenges are toxic to our culture and glorified eating disorders, he stated, "Support that you may receive on social media is hollow envy masquerading as love." And he was right.

Frances Anastasi, a clinical social worker and therapist who works with young women with eating disorders, said that negative body perceptions develop between the ages of 11 and 15, and can continue for the rest of our lives.

“This problem has been going on long before the internet,” Anastasi told Vivala. “[Young women] are getting a barrage of messages telling them what men like. [They] pick up on that, and become trained to look at the exterior. They are forced to look outward for validation. And the quickest form of validation is getting the attention from men.”

Anastasi makes a good point when she says that these issues have been around much longer than the internet has been. But there has never been such an easy way for these disturbing images and comparisons to be shared so widely and quickly. There’s been an onslaught of body challenges in the last year just like the belly-button challenge that are plainly about body image and perception. The collarbone challenge, for instance, requires placing a roll of coins on the inside of the clavicle. If the coins stay in place, again, then you are "thin enough".

There’s also the thigh gap phenomenon in which you stand with your feet pressed together, and see if there’s a gap between your inner thigh. Even Beyonce got caught up in this trend and met the wrath of Instagram commenters who claimed that she photoshopped a thigh gap into one of her shots

Then there’s the bikini bridge trend. That refers to what happens when you’re lying down on your back and there’s a space between your bathing suit bottom and your hip bone. That trend ended up being a hoax, but the damage was done.

The most recent, and potentially dangerous, challenge had young girls trying to emulate Kylie Jenner's plumped lips by creating strong suction around their pouts with a shot glass.

photo: Instagram/kyliejenner

One of the reasons these trends catch on fire is that it's actually quite common to compare yourself to others. It's just human nature. Dangers arise when we start to believe that what we're seeing online and shared on social media is reality and we start to let it make us feel bad or ashamed about ourselves.

“Look at Facebook,” Anastasi told Vivala. “Everything is a competition. You can be the most depressed person but have images saying otherwise.”  

The message that these body-shaming challenges send to young women is that if you can’t do this or that, then you are not good enough. I couldn't touch my belly-button and didn’t think twice about it, but I am not as impressionable as I was once. There are lots of young women out there who will feel like complete failures if they see others who are able to complete these "challenges" when they can not.

One way to stop this unhealthy cycle is to remind yourself that social media is not real and that it's all smoke and mirrors. Another way is to make sure to follow positive and empowering social media messaging instead of getting caught up in the latest fads. Anastasi advises women to look inside instead of outside. “They need to educate themselves and ask themselves what their real value is and what defines them.” When it comes down to it, our body type or whether or not we have a thigh gap or can balance a roll of quarters on our collarbones says nothing about who we really are.

Nutritionist Lisa Stollman also points out that these online body challenges do not in any way determine how healthy you are. “Being able to accomplish one of these challenges has nothing to do with health. You may be underweight or very flexible.”

She adds that feeling good about your body starts with taking care of it. “Eat healthy, exercise for one hour at least three days per week, avoid smoking, and drinking alcohol," Stollman told Vivala. "Don’t starve yourself or overexercise because that will only backfire.”

Anne Koller, Chief Emotion Officer at TAPIN, an organization that deals with emotional awareness, concludes that we should build better relationships with our bodies, instead of feeling shame for not being able to compete in these ridiculous online challenges.

“Imagine that your body is your BFF," Koller said. "Try, without judgement, to ask yourself what your status is, the same way you would post a status to Facebook.” Hopefully that status is happy, healthy and fulfilled.

There are so many real women on social media doing great things for themselves and their community. Surrounding ourselves with confident and positive people is the best way to avoid getting sucked into online negativity. Engage with inspiring Latinas that will boost your self-esteem. We've picked just a few empowering organizations and fearless Latinas that are fun to follow and always positive.