Do I measure up? Am I a #freak? – Young people and body image

Should you be worried if your daughter leaves all but her lettuce leaf on her dinner plate….or your son is at the gym for the fifth time already this week? What do you say if your child is on his second plate of bacon or won’t wear the school sports pants because it “makes my bum look big”?

Our body image is the way we see, think, feel and behave with regard to our bodies.

Body image has more to do with our perception of ourselves and others than it does with our body’s measurements. It is not surprising then, that if someone is feeling unhappy about themselves, about where they fit in their family, with their friends and with their world, that they can target their body as tangible source of dissatisfaction. Extreme body image problems can lead to all sorts of dangerous problems that include serious eating disorders. Body image can be a factor in self harm and suicidal behaviours.

In my many years of clinical practice, the research into eating disorders has advanced considerably, but it is still considered among mental health professionals to be one of the most difficult and intractable mental health disorders among the young.

Traditionally an area for teen girls, we are finding that eating disorders are starting to creep – they are creeping across genders with more males diagnosed, creeping to earlier ages of onset, and creeping to more presentations in the elderly as well.

The human body is one incredible machine.  From its earliest moments of creation where cells divide and specialize, through to the coordination of learning to walk, the miracle of learning to think and speak, the amazing ability to coordinate ourselves to accomplish all manner of things, to fight off disease, no other creation on Earth comes close to the totality of what a human body can do. So, what can happen to cause a person to develop such an unhealthy relationship with their own body?

There are a number of factors that seem to be linked with unhealthy body image. Understanding some of these may give us insight into how we can talk with young people about their bodies in ways which could promote healthier images or perceptions of their amazing bodies.

One factor we know about is age. Body image issues can arise at any age and some people have spoken to me about children as young as three of four mentioning that they are concerned about being “fat”. Clearly, given that much of our sense of self and our urge to belong or fit in, peaks in adolescence, so we do see the teen years as a time where we begin to notice more body image issues. Adolescence is also a time of increased growth, change in body fat distribution, changed sleep cycles and increased appetite and desire for sweet eats. If these changes co-occur with other distress, the link between body image and life dissatisfaction can be made – especially if other factors rewarded, criticized or modeled by influential friends or family cement the link.

Certain sorts of young people may be more prone to body image distress. Those who are perfectionistic, highly competitive, high achievers or those who are often benchmarking themselves in comparison to others are more prone to body image issues. So, too, young people who are very rigid in their thinking (“black and white”) who find it hard to find compromises or to meet some middle ground can be more at risk of unhealthy body images. They tend to make lots of rules for themselves around food, eating, shape, size and achievements so they judge their bodies very harshly if they think that they are not reaching a certain benchmark.

If a young person feels badly about themselves and the world because they have other issues with self esteem or depression, this can also affect their body image. Low self esteem or a depressive episode can be linked to unhealthy body image.

Teasing can negatively affect body image. So many of the young people I have seen in my practice for body image issues can pinpoint a time or day where someone teased them in relation to their body.

It may be that their brother has told them that their “bum does look big in that” or their “tuck-shop lady arms”. Being teased seems to lock in an association between feeling unhappy and having a body that does not measure up in the eyes of others.

Family and friends who are obsessed with diet and exercise can be a big problem. While cardiologists may be happy with this trend, I have seen more and more of these families over recent years. The families I get concerned about are the ones where the teen, despite being a healthy height-weight ratio, is criticized or teased for eating “Jatz crackers” after school or because they would rather sleep-in instead of getting up for early morning boot camp. It is not hard to see where these teens might begin to link feelings of dissatisfaction to their bodies – their families are modeling and, perhaps inadvertently, telling them that they don’t measure up.

In addition to families who have many food rules and strict exercise regimes, family or friends who constantly talk about body shapes – their own or others – are risky when it comes to teen body image. Researchers and authors of “If you’re fat, then I’m humongous” found that women often talk about being fat because they think it is a way of feeling better about themselves, but it actually has negative impacts on body image, rather than positive ones.

These days, in addition to traditional media, young people are also exposed to social media. New research about Facebook, the “selfies” and images portrayed has just been done at Melbourne University.  They found that those who make comparisons to other bodies on Facebook (usually their close friends) internalized a thin ideal and were more dissatisfied with their bodies.

The thing about Facebook (and perhaps many other forms of visual social media),  is that it provides a constant stream of comparison to images where much effort has been put into covering or deleting blemishes, carefully straightening hair, mastering the “hip-bone-propped-forward selfie stance” and all unfavorable pictures have been deleted, un-tagged or edited away.

When you step back and consider it, our young people (and ourselves) are frequently bombarded with messages that could easily set them up for poor relationships with their own bodies. We need to arm them with the knowledge and experiences to buffer them against the onslaught.

Be sure young people have a have a range of things that they are good at and enjoy. Psychologists refer to it as experiencing “pleasure and mastery”. It does not particularly matter what area or activities it involves, but it is important that there is space in young people’s lives for small pleasures and for doing things, however small, that they feel they are reasonably good at. Not too many rules and not too much benchmarking, just things that give them regular opportunities to experience warmth, pleasure and some self satisfaction. Physical activity is always a great option, but don’t beat your young people up to get them to engage or expect that a teen will want to wake up pre-dawn for that gym class.

It is also important that we help young people broaden their horizon and look outward rather than spend too much time alone with their thoughts. To think about helping others rather than competing or benchmarking themselves with others is important.

Crucial to a young person’s healthy body image is the role modeling at home. Make less/no fat talk, less/no food and exercise rules and more family fun and acceptance of diversity. Oh, and while I’m at it, less/no materialism and social comparison. There’s nothing like a family who feel like they need to keep up with the Joneses to engender a sense of dissatisfaction in the household.

Help your kids be media savvy – not just about body shape or size, but also about aging and wrinkles.

Help your kids understand that to sell a product or to gather a following, people will try to make them feel bad or dissatisfied. It won’t help young people, but it well help profit margins. Also, remember to let them know that this extends to the cleverly crafted advertisements that pop up in their social media feeds as well as in video content they may watch on the internet.

Have a word to those who are prone to tease in your family and your extended family. Traditionally, this would be the fathers, step fathers and brothers, but maybe this is changing? Be sure to explain to them the role that easing can play in body image issues and step in to stop it when you see it slip out again. Also, have a word to those who are being tease about the reasons people do such “dumb stuff”. Help the teasers and the teases find some other way to communicate and to find some mutual ground.

Remember, and spread the word, that our bodies are amazing – whatever their shape, age, wrinkliness, sagginess, bounciness or wobbliness. We should do what we can do to let them work at their best, but not be slaves to too many hard and fast rules about how best to operate them.

Guidance, experience and guidelines…not rules, measurements, health “guru-freaks” and rigidity.

For other information on body image, try the Butterfly Foundation , or the great fact sheet at{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de}20Image{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de}20Fact{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de}20Sheet.pdf

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