Bodytalk: The effects of image obsession

Body image it is something that most teens think about on a daily basis. To be exact, out of every 2,000 Irish teenagers 26% of girls and 10% of boys are unhappy with how they look. So how does that affect their mental health?
Dáil na nÓg asked over 2,000 Irish teenagers, aged between 10 and 21 that exact question and discovered a prevalence of negative self-image.

Figures that paint an even starker image are that 82% of girls and 70% of boys surveyed said body image was important to them.

The ‘How We See It’ study, published by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, found that only 37% of girls and almost half of boys said they were “fairly satisfied” with their bodies.

In the teenage years, “feelings of belonging” and that of “fitting in” can take on new proportions, explained Mary Crean of Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland. “The importance of looking a certain way in order to do this can take precedence over other things that may have been important in childhood”, Crean added.

The stress of trying to fit in becomes increasingly overwhelming with age. It affects concentration, happiness and general wellbeing. Teens’ mental health can start to suffer as they spend more time seeking acceptance than enjoying their time in school and with friends.

Of the test group, 15-year-olds showed the most body dissatisfaction, as 43% claimed they were unhappy with how they look. The Dáil na nÓg Council survey found that the most negative influence on girls’ body image was when they made comparisons between themselves and other girls.

Because of this, girls are up to twice as reluctant to take part in activities that expose their body, swimming ranks amongst the most avoided. The unhappiness associated with girls’ misconceptions of themselves also affects their social life as they are conscious of social acceptance through dating and even photos they put up on Facebook.

Bodywhys feels that “teenagers today are going through changes within the
context of a media saturated existence, where they are bombarded and surrounded by images of what is perceived as perfect, or imperfect, images that are distorted, Photoshopped, changed in order to create an aesthetic that sets the standard”.

It’s easy to forget that teenage boys are just as affected as girls. The survey showed that a high number of boys think that they exercise more in order to ‘‘stay in shape” as opposed to exercising to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Bodywhys are launching a campaign for third-level education to highlight this problem. As part of their ‘Size doesn’t matter – I DO!’ programme, they are using the slogan ‘It’s as hard to be Ken as it is to be Barbie’.

To boys with a muscular body comes strength and admiration both from their peers and the opposite sex. This often results in overuse of steroids, which can have negative effects on health and mental health, with side effects ranging from acne and liver failure, to depression.

The survey found that bullying had the most negative influence on body image. Most young people can’t meet the idealised social standard presented to them by the media. It would be impossible to Photoshop yourself in real life, yet anyone who sticks out of that standard is often subjected to cruelty.

With the development of the web and social media, it is easier to bully without getting caught. This has been seen in the recent cases of Ciara Pugsley and Phoebe Prince who both died as a result of cyberbullying.

The next time you look in the mirror, be positive about your image and your body.

Zofia Domaracka

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