Understanding Body Image Issues in Teens

body shape

Pretty. Ugly. Skinny. Chubby. Gawky. Unattractive.

At some point, almost everyone has felt this way about themselves. However, when children hit puberty and begin to reassess themselves, these words take on additional meaning.They become self-criticism, and that can lead to severe actions taken to correct these perceived flaws – actions that are disordered. Body image issues are present in virtually every case of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

What Is Body Image?

The easiest way to describe body image is how people think and feel about their body. Body image is subjective – people may not see what the world sees when they look in the mirror. Body image can be positive, negative, or distorted. If a person has a positive body image, they’re generally satisfied with their body and appearance. 

On the other hand, when a person has a negative body image, they feel unhappy or dissatisfied with their appearance. They may self-criticize and heap guilt or shame un themselves, which leads to a distorted perception of their appearance. This often manifests as a feeling of being fat or overweight. People with a negative body image feel conscious about their looks and uneasy with the way that they look to others and themselves.

Why Is Body Image Important to Adolescents?

The eventual adult’s self-perception and self-image begin to take shape during adolescence and the onset of puberty. Puberty, of course, causes extreme changes in a person’s body and brain chemistry, and “attractiveness” gains new importance.People of all genders must endure and learn to cope with changes in height, weight, reproductive organs, skin, body hair, and even the indignities of acne.

In addition to their changing bodies and the feelings that come with that chance, adolescence is a time when they form their own unique identities and learn to “fit in” with peers and adult society. A teen’s physical appearance, self-esteem, and body image are all up in the air and uncertain. However, the body image issues that can develop in adolescence often last far beyond those years, affecting people well into adulthood.

Why Do Teens Develop Negative or Distorted Body Image?

Certain environmental and individual factors make the teenage years more fraught with the chance of developing body dysmorphia (dissatisfaction with body image). These include:

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  • Rapidly changing bodies:Aside from the disorientation of growing rapidly and the changing of the body’s shape, there are countless socially-imposed “ideals” of an attractive body that teens are bombarded with daily. Not “living up to” these images or ideas can leave anyone, not just teenagers, feeling dissatisfied.
  • These idealized images are an inescapable part of modern life:Research shows that about two-thirds of teenage girls in 5th to 12th grade see magazine images and compare their body to those of the models on the cover. Half of the young women who took part in the study said that these images made them want to diet or otherwise take steps to lose weight. In the United States, diet culture is so strong that 40-60 percent of girls aged 6-12 have expressed concerns over their weight.

Can Body Image Trigger an Eating Disorder?

Absolutely. People with a negative body image are much more liable to develop disordered eating behaviors than those with a positive body image. Because eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa can be so devastating, if parents notice their child has a negative self-image or frequently refer to themselves as fat, they should consider talking to a specialist sooner rather than later.

A Few Ways to Regulate Body Image

It’s common for people to have days when they feel uncomfortable or awkward in their own bodies. But if a repeated pattern of negative body image arises, it’s important to work towards changing those thoughts into a more positive way of looking at one’s own body. Some tips for combating a negative body image include:

  • Recognizing negative or distorted thoughts and acknowledging that they can be changed
  • Appreciating one’s body as it is
  • Prioritizing health over weight
  • Placing value in non-physical traits
  • Asking for help and remembering they’re not alone
  • Seeking out positive role models

Body image issues during adolescence can be difficult for parents to understand. But with a bit of mindfulness and a strong support system, enjoying a positive self-image and preventing an eating disorder is possible.

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