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 smoking diet pills, taking supplements to increase muscle mass or change their appearance through cosmetic procedures.

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.

“Social media, for better or worse, contains so much information, some of which is accurate and positive and some of it is inaccurate and negative,” said Joshua Russell, child and adolescent psychiatrist with UB. “It projects unrealistic expectations.”

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.

“It gets harder as kids get older and they have more autonomy,” Russell said. “One of parents’ roles is to have a sense of what social media platforms kids are using, what kind of content is on there, for younger kids, it’s reasonable for parents to have access to passwords to sites to make sure kids are safe and looking at appropriate things. Day to day take a more nonchalant focus on how kids dress and things like that.”

Russell likes the positive messages offered by the new Disney movie, “Encanto,” which 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.

“It’s useful for parents to not necessarily point out the bodies of those characters, but the positives you see from the characters,” Russell said. “A lot of it is about taking a general approach and expectation that all body types are acceptable. Look at the achievement and hard work that people have done and it has nothing to do with body size and type.”

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.

Leading by example is how Rodrick Davis, pediatrician at Portland Pediatric Group in Rochester, wants more parents to help their children develop a healthy body image.

“If parents are careful to not judge by body size and to recognize that people have different looks and are built differently, that helps,” he said. “Start early on to help them recognize that not everything is within the normal range. If she’s 15, it may be too late. When they’re younger is the ideal time to start.”

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.