Teenagers and poor body image: Sign of the times

Our children start to believe that if only they looked ‘perfect,’ their lives would be wonderful.

MOST TWEENS, teens and young adults grapple with negative feelings about their changing bodies. (photo credit: TNS)
MOST TWEENS, teens and young adults grapple with negative feelings about their changing bodies.
(photo credit: TNS)
When you think about teenagers – or even think back to yourself as a teen – you possibly associate that stage of life with poor body image. And, indeed, most tweens, teens and young adults grapple with negative feelings about their changing bodies.
It’s easy enough to dismiss the issue – isn’t poor body image during these years part of growing up? But it doesn’t have to be. Even amid teenage angst and drama, it’s possible to promote a positive body image that will help teens to grow into wholesome, content adults.
At its very basic definition, a poor or unhealthy body image means the individual is unhappy with how he or she looks, and desires and/or tries to change his or her body’s size or shape. Conversely, a healthy body image means that the individual is satisfied with his or her body, comfortable and accepting of the overall “picture.”
Note, this doesn’t necessarily have to do with actual weight or size but, rather, with how a person feels about weight or size. As adults, we know that feelings about our bodies change throughout our lives; we also know that patterns of thinking about our bodies are established early in life, and that a deeply established negative, unhealthy body image is really hard to overcome.
For today’s tweens, teens and young adults, living in an age of social media and 24/7 visual assault, it is very easy to fall into a pattern of poor body image. The models and actors that fill our screens and magazine covers are completely nonrepresentative body types – and that’s before editing tools are used to distort bodies even further into unnatural forms. Here are some sobering statistics:
• The average American woman is 5’4” (1.62 m.) and weighs 140 lbs. (63.5 kg.). The American average model is 5’11” (1.80 m.) and weighs 117 lbs. (53 kg.). That means the average model is skinnier than 98% of the US population.
• 80% of women say that images of women in media make them feel insecure.
• 42% of girls in first through third grades want to be thinner.
• 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
• Over 50% of teenage girls are, or think they should be, on a diet to lose the 40 lbs. (18.14 kg.) on average they naturally gain from age eight to 14.
And it’s not just girls/women. Boys and men are also feeling the pressure to measure up to the tall, ripped-muscled, wide-shouldered, narrow-hipped bodies they constantly see – idealized images that dominate media and advertising. Guys who look like that are movie stars; those who look like “regular guys” are “character actors.” We all recognize that Barbie is not anatomically feasible; the same is now true for toys aimed at boys. According to a recent article, over the past 20 years, action figures aimed at boys (like G.I. Joe) have grown so muscular that a real person literally could never have those proportions!
In addition to unrealistic cultural beauty ideals that are propagated through media – movies, TV, advertising, social media – there are other factors contributing to poor body image in tweens, teens and young adults. Simply going through puberty and managing the huge changes in their bodies – especially relative to their peers – can impact body image. So can parents’ attitudes toward their own bodies. When parents constantly talk about dieting, or grimace when they look at themselves in the mirror, call themselves “fat,” talk about hating their bodies, or refuse to be in photos because they hate how they look, all that negative body image is conveyed to their children. How can children learn to love their own bodies, if their biggest role models exude their own poor body images?
Here’s the issue: What our children learn from all of this is that they need to be “perfect” – an unrealistic goal for anyone, in any situation. They start to believe that if only they looked “perfect,” their lives would be wonderful. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, this translates into the following fundamental – and fundamentally dangerous – set of beliefs:
• My body has to be perfect.
• I’m not satisfied with my body.
• A perfect body would make me happy.
• A perfect body would earn me acceptance from others.
• A perfect body would earn love and admiration, even attention.
• Perfection is defined by a number on the scale or a size on a tag.
• I will do anything to have a perfect body.
The danger in this line of thinking is that poor body image leads to poor self-esteem, which can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, use of steroids to build muscles, risky and unnecessary plastic surgery, and other dangerous activities.
You’ll want to stay alert for worrying behaviors in tweens, teens and young adults that indicate an unhealthy body image... and even the beginnings of depression or an eating disorder. These include frequent criticism of the body or parts of the body (“I’m ugly, I’m fat, my nose is too long, my butt is too big, I’m too short, I’m so puny,” etc.); not wanting to leave the house or try new activities, because of the way he or she looks; obsessing about losing weight; spending a lot of time looking in the mirror or at selfies and pointing out perceived flaws; excessive exercising; and assigning feelings of shame or guilt around food.
SO, WHAT can concerned parents, adults and even the tweens, teens and young adults themselves do to help cultivate and nurture a positive body image? Here are some suggestions:
1. Focus on the whole person. It is critical to be focusing on what the body can do rather than on what the body looks like.
If you are the adult, compliment strength and effort. Talk about what it means to be an authentic, productive person. Praise inner attributes. Stay away from commenting on the child’s actual body – whether in a positive or negative tone (for instance, say “You look really nice tonight” as opposed to “You look skinny.” Say “I don’t think that shirt is the most flattering” rather than “You look fat in that shirt”).
Teach your tween, teen or young adult to recognize their specific strengths and how to leverage them to contribute to their community.
If you are a tween, teen or young adult, learn to recognize and appreciate everything your body is capable of – which has nothing to do with how you look. Learn to value the qualities and quirks that make you who you are. Shut down the inner critic who keeps trying to label you.
2. Make taking care of the body a priority. We only get one body; it’s up to us to take care of it so that it remains healthy and capable throughout our lives. That means focusing on sleeping enough, eating right, maintaining a healthy body weight, and exercising appropriately, instead of on appearances.
3. Change the language. Instead of using the term “diet,” talk about making healthy food choices. Rather than focusing on exercise to change the way the body looks, talk about exercising to be strong. Talk about makeup in terms of confidence rather than “looking prettier.”
4. Be a good role model. The young people in our lives see and hear everything we do. If you are constantly criticizing how you look, that gets internalized by them. If you grimace every time you look in the mirror, they learn to do that whenever they look in the mirror. If you refuse to participate in events or be in pictures because you don’t like the way you look, not only do they learn that behavior, you are erasing yourself from memories they will have of you.
5. Reality check media images. Make it very clear to the tweens, teens and young adults in your life that actors/actresses/models represent a teeny, minuscule, infinitesimal fraction of how human beings look. Explain that is it these individuals’ jobs – they literally get paid – to look a certain way, so beyond their “starting points” as attractive people with great metabolisms and clear skin, they can and do devote their daily lives toward obsessive self-care, in a way that the rest of us cannot afford to do... and don’t need to.
Share information about the hugely different beauty standards for men and women across the world, so that they understand that the images they are seeing are not the only ways that people in this world are beautiful. Explain how editing tools are used to manipulate images to such a degree that human beings can’t actually look like the photos they are seeing. There are great videos on YouTube that demonstrate these processes with staggering before/after comparisons.
At the end of the day, developing a healthy body image instead of a poor body image is about learning to accept and like your body, with all of its unique and wonderful imperfections.
While it may be hard to combat the progression of poor body image in tweens, teens and young adults, being aware and making the types of efforts delineated above can help put them on the right path to a positive, healthy body image, one that will get them through these challenging formative years with intact self-esteem and serve them well throughout their lives.
The writer is an internationally trained mind, body and nutrition coach and founder and CEO of Nourishment Vitality Coaching.