Body image is the way you think and feel about your body. Cultivating a positive body image is important for teens as it is associated with improved self-confidence, self-esteem, and social development. On the contrary, a negative body image is associated with problems, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
About 78% of girls in the US are said to be unhappy with their bodies by the time they are seventeen years old (1). But what affects a teen’s body image? In this post, we present the factors that influence teen body image, signs of negative body image, and ways to improve a teen’s self-perception and body image.
What Influences Teen Body Image?
Several factors could influence a teen’s body image. Below are some of the common ones.
- Family environment: Parents play an essential role in the development of their child’s healthy body image (2). Their attitude, opinions about children’s appearance, and food habits could impact the teen’s body image. The way parents regard their own bodies and food may also play an important role in shaping the teen’s body perceptions.
- Peer influence: Teens spend a considerable amount of time with their peer group and often try to emulate them to fit in. They generally value the opinions given by peers. If peers talk about weight loss and tease the teen about their weight, it could impact the teen’s body image (3). Peers’ perception of their own bodies might also influence the way teens feel about themselves.
- Socio-cultural environment: Body image could be influenced by customs and general beliefs related to the body in a community. Natural differences in the body could be less acceptable in some communities, thus affecting the teens’ perception of body image within that community (2).
- Media influence: Teens are constantly exposed to different forms of media that promote models and actors with “ideal bodies.” This may cause a teen to have warped expectations regarding their own appearance.
- Individual aspects: Certain existing disorders, feelings, and conditions may also affect body satisfaction and perception. A few notable examples are anxiety, depression, the feeling of helplessness, and problematic relationships.
- Early body image influences are dolls and toys where the body image is unrealistic and idealized. These can lead to distorted beliefs about the ideal body.
Causes Of Negative Body Image
Children develop body image at a very young age. However, teens are particularly susceptible to body image issues due to several factors. A negative body image may be caused by:
- Being teased or bullied: Adolescents may be bullied or teased about the way they look by their peers. If this continues unchecked, the child who is constantly being harassed with cruel and negative remarks may slowly start believing in what they hear, even if it is untrue. This may cause him or her to develop a poor body image (4).
- Changes caused due to puberty: Girls generally begin puberty at the age of 11. Their bodies undergo several changes during this time. They grow hair on their arms and legs, get their periods, develop breasts, and sometimes get acne. If girls don’t get support and guidance during this phase, they may find it difficult to deal with the changes in their bodies and develop a negative body image (5).
- Peer pressure: The peers’ opinions influence the teen body image. Teenagers constantly compare themselves to peers and seek validation from them. Several teens are glued to social media, where they seek appreciation in the form of likes, views, or comments to their pictures. If they don’t get the desired number of likes or good feedback, it may negatively affect their self-image.
- Media impact: Teens are enamored by the unrealistic portrayals of beauty on TV, movies, magazines, and social media. Being constantly exposed to those images convinces them that they need to have bodies like that, and it is the only way to be liked and admired. These unrealistic expectations may slowly lead them to the development of a negative perception of their body. Also, according to the American Psychological Association, the sexualization of girls and young women in the media may negatively impact girls’ self-image and healthy sexual development (6).
- Situation at home: In some homes, parents put undue pressure on their children to be popular and attractive by criticizing or comparing them to their peers. Few mothers have their own weight-related issues and thus may constantly worry about their child’s weight. Children in such homes are more likely to develop body image issues.
- Certain personality traits: Some children may have certain personality traits, which may make them more susceptible to developing a negative body image. A teen who has an obsessive nature might fixate too much on their perceived flaws and develop a negative body image. A perfectionist might spend too much time looking closely at themselves and may worry about the smallest flaw.
- Psychological factors: Teens with body image issues, who also have mental conditions, such as depression or anxiety, could be more susceptible to developing a negative body image.
The development of teen body image is a gradual process and due to the interplay of several factors.
Signs Of Teenage Body Image Problems
Look out for certain indicators that may tell you if your teenager is going through body image issues.
- Obsesses with physical appearance: Teenagers are often obsessed with their appearance. However, if your teenager spends a lot of time analyzing their appearance in the mirror, is extremely critical of their body, and constantly compares themselves with others, they might be developing body image issues.
- Fears facing the world: If your child is afraid to go out and refuses to participate in activities because of the way they look, they may have a body image issue.
- Dislikes being photographed: Teenagers with negative body image do not like to be photographed and are always critical of their pictures.
- Obsesses with losing weight: If your teen is constantly worried about losing weight and diets or works-out excessively, then consider the possibility of a body image issue.
- Wants to undergo cosmetic procedures: The teenager may insist on undergoing cosmetic procedures to alter specific body parts that they dislike.
- Develops eating disorders: Teenagers with body image issues are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. They may associate feelings of guilt or shame with food and may blame it for their issues. Watch out for signs, such as limiting food intake, overeating and purging, excessive exercise, or social withdrawal.
- Doesn’t concentrate: Since teens with a negative body image spend a lot of time obsessing about their bodies, they may lose focus on other important things, such as studies, building social interactions, and participating in extracurricular activities.
Consequences Of Poor Body Image
A negative body image could significantly affect various aspects of a teenager’s life. The following are some of the likely consequences of poor body image.
- Affects self-image: Teenagers with negative body image are likely to feel constantly embarrassed about their bodies. This may cause significant emotional distress and lead to serious health issues, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. In the worst case, it may also lead to self-harming behaviors.
- Impacts nutrition: Body image issues may cause teenagers to skip meals, diet obsessively, or take diet pills. This may seriously harm their nutrition.
- Causes addictions: Some teenagers might smoke or take drugs to reduce their weight. This may lead them to develop severe addictions, which can further deteriorate their health.
- Affects social life: Teenagers with negative body image may withdraw socially or isolate themselves. They may stop participating in activities that require any kind of body exposure, such as swimming, sports, or working out. Negative body image may also cause them to avoid engaging in healthy relationships.
Effects Of Media On A Teenage Girl’s Body Image
Each day, teenagers in the United States spend an average of nine hours using screen media (7). They are continuously exposed to unnatural standards of beauty, with ultra-thin or muscular models occupying the screens. It is the same scenario on social media where individuals promote “ideal” beauty and fitness levels.
Most images and videos portrayed in media undergo extensive processing and editing. Not to mention the essential role of beauty products in making models appear flawless. However, most teenage girls are oblivious to these facts and tend to believe what they see. It could eventually lead to the following consequences.
- Girls who regularly read fashion magazines may become dissatisfied with their body appearance. A study noted that amongst American elementary school girls who read magazines, about 69% claimed that magazine pictures influenced their concept of perfect body shape, and 47% claimed that the pictures inclined them to lose weight (8).
- Media puts pressure on adolescents for ideal physical appearance. Adolescents start assessing themselves based on these ideals. This results in the development of poor self-esteem and body image (9).
- Adolescents may consider these ideal beauty images projected by the media as desirable. If they cannot match up to these ideals, they may become dissatisfied with their bodies and develop eating disorders (10).
- Poor body image is not a mental illness in itself, but it can lead to it. High body dissatisfaction causes psychological distress, which can develop into further complications (11).
How To Prevent Negative Effects Of Media On Teen Body Image?
While it is difficult to keep teens away from media exposure, there are ways in which we can ensure their body image remains positive.
- Educate your teens about media: Check out what your teens are watching and watch it with them. Ask them what they feel about it. Explain to them that the portrayal of people in the media is far from reality.
- Teach them the truth behind advertisements: Teens should know that the images they see in advertisements are merely a marketing tactic. Educate them that the purpose of ads is to ensure people buy their products. So, the images are enhanced to remove any imperfections and make models appear more attractive.
- Inform them about the realities behind the glitz: Educate your teens that the bodies represented in these marketing campaigns are often unhealthy. Inform them about the painful and harmful measures, such as cosmetic surgeries, that models undergo to achieve those bodies.
Talking About Body Image With Your Child
Children are attached to their parents. Having a conversation with your child regarding body image and issues might help them open up to you. Here are some ways in which you can guide teens to develop self-esteem and a healthy body image.
- Speak positively: Refrain from using words such as “fat,” “overweight,” “thin,” or “diet.” Instead, advise your teen to eat healthy food and exercise regularly to be healthy and strong. Educate your family and friends about not teasing anyone about their weight or other physical attributes.
- Encourage your child to eat healthily: Inculcate healthy eating habits in your children. Show them how to make healthy food choices. Do not force your children to eat everything on their plates. Instead, educate them about eating mindfully to understand when they are full. Discourage your children from skipping meals.
- Discuss beauty with your teen: Advise your teen to look beyond appearance and become a good person. Show appreciation for your child’s kindness and good behavior.
- Encourage your teen to indulge in physical activities: Participation in sports and physical activities that do not have weight and size criteria can help build confidence and improve your teenager’s self-esteem.
- Educate your teen about the effects of puberty: Talk to your teenage girl about the effects of puberty and answer any questions she may have. Assure her that the changes are a normal part of growth.
- Talk to your child about body image: Understand how your teenager feels about their body. If your child tells you that they do not like certain parts of their body, talk to them, and identify the reasons behind it. Educate them that a healthy body comes in different shapes and sizes. Communicate the things you appreciate about them to boost their self-confidence and self-love.
- Check your child’s media exposure: Teens today use social media sites for validation. They feel low if they receive negative feedback on their photos. Have a frank conversation with your children about what they see and post. Set certain rules about internet usage to protect their self-esteem.
Speaking to your child about body image will help them develop a positive body image. A positive body image could help the teen develop the following positive attributes.
- Improved self-worth: Teens who feel positive about their bodies feel more confident. Their self-esteem improves, and they become more positive in life.
- Better self-acceptance: Teenagers who have developed positive body image know their flaws, but they choose to accept themselves and love themselves the way they are.
- Healthier choices: Developing a positive body image makes teens more responsible with their bodies. They care for their bodies by eating healthy, working out, and sleeping well.
What Do You Say To A Girl With Body Image Issues?
As discussed earlier, facing criticism about appearance may cause the person to develop body image issues. Here are a few tips on how to speak to girls with body image issues.
- Compliment her. Explain what you like about her. Teach her to accept compliments. Try to avoid compliments based on weight. Rather “That color looks beautiful on you.” “I really like how you show that you care.”
- Don’t demean yourself in front of her. It may affect her negatively.
- Share your experiences with her. Let her know how you cope with negative feedback.
- Support her and make her comfortable. If she starts sharing her experiences, listen patiently, and discuss the situation. Do not brush her off if she tries to tell you the negative things she feels about herself. It is good to initiate a conversation about body image.
- Lead by example. Show her how to stay positive about her body.
- Raise your voice against bullying, teasing, and fat-shaming and encourage her to do the same.
- Show her how to block negative messages on social media and teach her how to use it to spread awareness about body image issues.
- Encourage her to participate in the celebration of days, such as “International No Diet Day,” which promotes body positivity.
Tips For Positive Teen Body Image
While parents can guide their teens in maintaining a healthy body image, the actual push has to come from within. Here are a few tips for teens to develop a positive body image.
- Focus on what your body can do: Instead of being unhappy about the way you look, focus on what you can achieve with your body’s help. Avoid obsessively demeaning your body. Cherish it.
- Do things for yourself: Make your body feel appreciated. Do things that make you happy, wear clothes you love, and indulge in activities you enjoy.
- Appreciate your personality as a whole: Stop looking at yourself by just your body. Remind yourself about all your good qualities, skills, and achievements.
- Use affirmations: Prepare a list of things you love about yourself. Say those things out loud to yourself in the mirror every day. Block all the negative comments (yes, even the voices in your head!) by replacing them with positive ones. Keep in mind that beauty is a state of mind.
- Don’t believe everything you see or hear from the media: Think rationally before believing what you see in magazines, TV, movies, and social media. Remind yourself that the portrayals in them are unrealistic. Avoid the content that triggers negative thoughts. If you notice yourself feeling low after being exposed to the media, give yourself a small break from it.
- Be around positive people: Spending time with people who support and encourage you will boost your self-esteem. Sharing your feelings and experiences with such people could make you feel lighter and happier.
- Focus on important things: Channelize your energy towards your life goals instead of wasting it on obsessing about yourself. Do things that are important to you and, in the process, help others as well. This will make you feel happy about yourself.
A negative body image greatly affects the life of a teenager with lasting consequences. Remember, it is never too late to help your teens develop a healthy body image. Regularly talk to them about any confusion regarding their bodies. If your child is struggling with body image issues, consider seeking professional help.
2. Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, Common Sense Media
3. The Role of Friends and Peers in Adolescent Body Dissatisfaction: Griffith University
4. The Effects of Gender and Family, Friend and Media Influences on Eating Behaviour and Body Image During Adolescence, Journal of Youth and Adol/escence
5. Stages of puberty: what happens to boys and girls, NHS UK
6. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, American Psychological Association
7. The Common Sense Census: Media Use By Tweens and Teens, Common Sense Media
8. Exposure to the mass media and weight concerns among girls, Pediatrics, Mar 1999, National Library of Medicine
9. Adolescent Self-Esteem and Gender: Exploring Relations to Sexual Harassment, Body Image, Media Influence, and Emotional Expression, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2001
10. A. E. Field et al., Influence of the Mass Media and Body Dissatisfaction on the Risk in Adolescents of Developing Eating Disorders, NCBI
11. Body image report – Executive Summary, Mental Health Foundation
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