Poor Body Image Affects Teens’ Mental Health

Body image in particular for females has always been an ongoing problem

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Teens who view their body image negatively experience an increased risk of low self-esteem, depression, nutrition and growth issues, eating disorders and having a higher body mass index of 30 or higher, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Some may try to control their weight by less than healthful methods and/or seek body modifying procedures to achieve the look they want.

Oftentimes, teens base their ideal body image on what they see in the media—only now instead of just movies, magazines and television, teens can access media anytime, anywhere.

This helps add to “the misconception that there is one ‘good’ body type, and lack of respect for body size diversity,” said physician Karen Teelin, associate professor of pediatrics and director of adolescent medicine at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital.

Via social media, anyone has the ability to post and see unrealistic images and videos that portray perfect lives. The software used to improve posts is ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, young people tend to view these posts as reality and the ideal to which they should aspire, whether that’s a svelte figure, chiseled abs or high cheekbones.

Teelin encourages parents to “avoid talking about diet foods, body size and shape and calories,” to help their children develop a healthy body image.

“Instead focus on health, energy and happiness,” she added. “Model healthy body image and dietary habits and avoid fad diets, instead focusing on overall healthy lifestyle. Meet your youth where they are, listen and support them, help them be themselves, and provide them space while remaining aware and involved.”

The new Disney movie, “Encanto,” offers positive body images that parents can use to draw attention to different body types.

The movie features Mirabel, a teen with a typical body type, and Luisa, a supporting character whose physical strength is her special magical power. Luisa’s body composition befits her power, as she is tall and muscular. Neither is like the clichéd Disney female with a slim, willowy body type.

Parents do not necessarily need to point out the body types in media but acknowledge positive aspects that may not have to do with appearance.

Children should take breaks from social media and to spend more of their down time engaging in activities that build their confidence. Accomplishing goals allows teens to develop a sense of worth outside of their physical appearance. Building meaningful relationships, both familial and among friends, can help teens’ self-image, too.

It can be tough for young people in a society that prizes appearance as a measure of worth to not do so themselves when they consider their own appearance or others’ appearance.

Michelle Dougan, personal trainer with Elevate Fitness in Liverpool, was overweight as a child.

“It’s really tough because being a woman, everyone looks at her for her jiggle,” Dougan said. “My nickname was ‘Fatty Fatty Fat Face.’ I started going to the pool and riding my bike one summer and lost weight.”

Despite her weight loss so many years ago, she still views herself as overweight because of the verbal arrows slung at her.

“Kids are mean,” she said. “Parents need to speak with their kids about it. I feel that if I had someone to talk about it, like a parent, that would’ve helped.”

Parents should praise their children for their character and other traits beyond appearance.

Modeling healthy behavior can also help children develop a better body image. For example, complaining about one’s weight, going on extreme diets, calling food “bad” or “good” or making derogatory comments about appearance can contribute to body image issues.

Instead, parents should emphasize improving health, such as exercising regularly and eating a healthful, balanced diet. Regular exercise does not have to be a gym-based regimen but can include enjoyable physical activities and sports.

No foods are “bad” or “good,” but a healthful diet focuses on plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, dairy and a few healthful fats, but with minimal processed foods.

In addition, a pediatrician can discuss healthy body weight during a well child visit.

Chakrapani Irri, pediatrician at Children’s Health Specialists in Auburn, said that he can help parents look up their child’s body mass index to present facts that they are in fact a healthy weight for their height.

For teens who need to lose some weight, “they sometimes try to lose weight in unhealthy ways,” Irri said.

Instead of purging, laxatives, diet pills and extreme eating plans, consuming a balanced diet can lead to lasting, healthful weight loss, along with regular aerobic exercise and strength training.