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What Factors Influence Body Image in Teens and Young Adults?

Adolescence is a pivotal time involving rapid and dramatic changes to a teen’s body and mind. Peer acceptance and being “popular” is perhaps most important to children between the ages of 12 and 16, but it lasts a lifetime. The pressures put on people of all ages and genders by the media and on social media don’t stop at adolescence, though. Adults continue to be assailed by media images and video of so-called perfect bodies throughout their lifetimes.

Other factors come into play as well. The pressure adolescents and young adults face from their athletic endeavors, beginning to date and gauge their “attractiveness,” and even from their parents and other clos family can all influence a body image distortion. All these factors, or a combination of them, influence the way young people see themselves, and can have profound influence on they way they eat and exercise.

In an article found in the Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance, one of the first contributors to treating body dysmorphic disorder, body image is an “intrinsic view of the exterior self. The perception of a person’s body image can feel as intimate and real as the body itself.” This inner view of the body’s outward appearance can become distorted when the individual is constantly being exposed to idealized images and ideas of what a person’s body “should look like.”

In people who already have low self-esteem or poor body image, seeing these images can make them feel their body, weight, or appearance aren’t good enough or valid enough. They may begin to feel out of control over their bodies or feel that they personally are not valid. Many eating disorders are not about weight as much as they are about regaining a sense of control over some aspect of their lives. Disordered eating behaviors provide a maladapted sense that the person is controlling some part of the chaos in their lives.

Signs of Distorted Body Image

It is perfectly normal for children to become conscious of their bodies in adolescence and want to look their best. But when teens begin to focus too much on their bodies, it can result in stress and anxiety. If parents believe that their teens are experiencing any of the following warning signs, they should speak to them about their concerns and consult a medical professional.

Signs of negative body image can include:

  • Continually comparing body with others
  • Feeling inadequate about or criticizing one’s body
  • Not wanting to leave the house because of the way one looks
  • Avoiding activities or trying new things because of the way they feel about their body
  • Obsessing over food, weight, calories, dieting or exercise
  • Obsessing over specific body parts like arms, legs or stomach
  • Frequently checking their body in the mirror or taking photos to help identify “imperfections”
  • Creating a link between food and feelings of shame, guilt or disgust
  • Perfectionist tendencies
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide the body’s shape
  • Frequent dieting or trying out fad diets

How the Increase in Social Media Usage has Spurred More Eating Disorders

People of all ages also struggle with finding themselves , in other words, discovering a sense of self and meaning to their lives. Consequently, they are extremely vulnerable to identifying with celebrities they perceive as “perfect.” Because body image is heavily influenced by images of celebrities who are almost always incredibly thin and toned, the rates of eating disorders and a distorted body image are higher than it has ever been in the U.S.

A person’s body imagecan be one of the main underlying causes of the development of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder. Other factors contributing to eating disorders in teens include personality traits such as perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and feelings of emptiness. Addressing body image is one of the first aspects therapists focus on when treating eating disorders, and it’s a central focus throughout the process.

Social media has infiltrated every aspect of most people’s lives, especially teenagers. Using Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and so on, teenagers are exposed to both their peers and various celebrities, models, and “fitness” or “beauty” professionals, all pushing a certain body ideal that may not be possible to attain.

Social media can bring people together and create opportunities to provide support, exchange ideas, and build communities of like-minded people. IN fact, several social media platforms are home to eating disorder recovery groups that help people discuss their recovery and back each other up. For all their flaws, social media platforms have given people of all stripes the chance to express themselves and build communities.

The flip side of the positives of social media are the ways it has been used to bully young people into doing and feeling like they aren’t living up to society’s expectations of them. In some ways, because the influencers and models they look up to are “real people,” social media can be even more dangerous than the traditional media. Promoting a focus on “thinness” can influence eating disorders because someone like an Instagram model can interact with the person they’re marketing to, unlike an actor in a movie.

Traditional Media Is Also a Factor

In the virtually every culture, body image for teens and young adults revolves around attaining standards of beauty propagated by the media: thin body, flawless skin, attractively styled hair, and symmetrical features. For men, this often manifests as a slim, or muscular physique, sharp features, and ideal shoulder-to-hip ratio. Comparing oneself to the images of celebrities or social media figures can lead to a triggering of body dysmorphic disorder, which is common in the development of various eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

This doesn’t preclude the continued existence of traditional media like TV, movies, and print, which also tend to feature only thin women and muscular men. Since comparing one’s body to others’ is a common form of body dysmorphia, both social and traditional media can act as a further trigger for disordered eating behaviors – driving still-impressionable teenagers to try to lose weight in a futile attempt to match what they see.

Social media can influence the development of eating disorders, but it’s not the be all, end all of the situation. A proper diagnosis and early intervention are key in addressing body image issues and the symptoms of an eating disorder. It’s wise to secure a treatment plan from an accredited facility sooner rather than later. During this treatment, body image distortions, anxiety, depression or other co-occurring issues can also be addressed.

Athletics Can Come into Play, Especially in High School and College

Eating disorders tend to affect young girls and female athletes more often than their male peers, but boys can also develop common eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Research shows when young athletes participate in competitive sports that focus on individual performance, weight requirements, appearance and their diet, they may have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Some examples of competitive and individual sports with potential links to eating disorder development include:

  • Wrestling
  • Gymnastics
  • Ballet and Dance
  • Running
  • Bodybuilding
  • Figure skating
  • Swimming and Diving

Related factors that can increase a young athlete’s risk of developing an eating disorder include:

  • Feeling pressure to maintain a specific body shape
  • Enforced or mandatory dieting
  • Working with a coach or peers who focus on competition and success rather than team building and sportsmanship
  • Misconceptions surrounding body shape and better performance
  • A requirement to complete regular “weigh-ins” in order to compete

Dating and Feeling “Attractive”

A major factor in a person’s self-esteem is how attractive they seem to potential dating partners. During the beginning of an adolescent’s dating life, they may develop an unrequited crush or be rejected, sending them into a shame spiral. They may come to doubt their own attractiveness, and those feelings can become obsessive and center around weight and body shape. They may feel they need to go on a crash diet or purge to attain a “better” body. When discussing dating and sex with their adolescent kids, parents should be sensitive to potential body image issues and supportive of HAES (Health At Every Size) to prevent disordered eating behaviors and foreground the importance of embracing one’s own beauty.

Parenting Plays a Role

As with many mental health disorders, the nature versus nurture debate is central to determining the causes of body dysmorphia. Parents often play a major role, if an inadvertent one, in their children’s body image. Children are highly observant of their parents; they will often emulate what they see and are told by them. Of course, if a child or teen is forced to go on a diet or told they are overweight by their parents, it can have a negative influence on their self-image. Even if not told directly, an example can be set by the parent’s behaviors. If a parent is frequently self-critical about their weight or is always dieting, that can promote a negative self-image in the child.

This is not to indicate that parents should not discuss body image with their teenagers or young adults, or that valid health concerns should be taboo. However, considering the incredible influence parents have on their kids’ behaviors, they should learn about the risks of disordered eating – and make a special effort to promote intuitive eating and body acceptance. Although other factors like genetics, the media, and co-occurring disorders like depression have important roles in the development of eating disorders, parents can help prevent them by being aware of eating disorders and educating their kids as well.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.
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