Teenagers and Body Image
Much has been written about body image over the past decades - almost all of it suggesting that both men and women are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their physical selves. The 1997 Psychology Today Body Image Survey of 4,000 men and women asked participants about weight and attitudes towards their physiques and specific body parts. Fifty-six percent of women revealed that they were dissatisfied with their overall appearance, and an astounding 89% of women wanted to lose weight. Fifty-four percent of girls aged 13-19 were dissatisfied, and 41% of boys in the same age bracket reported overall dissatisfaction. These figures were much higher than those reported in previous surveys conducted by the same magazine in 1972 and 1985.1 Why are more people becoming dissatisfied with their appearance? The answer is certainly complex and influenced by a number of factors, including the growing disparity between our actual body weights and those of models, actors and celebrities depicted in advertising and the media.
Body Image Defined
Body image is a person's inner conception of his or her own physical appearance. This conception may or may not correlate with objective reality. Each person holds an image of the physically perfect person in mind and evaluates his or her appearance against this ideal. A person who is pleased with his or her body shape and appearance is said to have a positive self-image. The psychological construct of body image includes cognitive and emotional aspects as well as sensory input. For instance, we modify our ideas of our own bodies according to our emotional state as well as the reactions of others in the environment.
Much of the research on body image has been conducted on adolescents as this developmental period is not only one of great physical change but also the time that teens begin to subject themselves to (often painful) scrutiny. The changes of puberty and resulting sexual maturation often make adolescents feel self-conscious and awkward about their bodies. Adolescent girls appear to be particularly vulnerable to developing a negative body image. They tend to ignore other abilities and focus on appearance as evidence of worthiness - with consequent lowered self-esteem and increased risk for psychiatric disorders, including eating disorders.
Virginia, 12: "The best body is ribs, skin and bones, and that's the only thing I care about."
Karen, 15: "I'm fat and ugly. I have to lose twenty pounds. I need a nose job, my hair is a mousy color; my lips are too thin and I could use lip injections. I exercised my stomach muscles and now they're hard, but I still have a belly."
Although women in our society have always been concerned with appearance, standards of beauty have changed with the times. Thin was not always in. Prior to the 20th century, being thin was considered a sign of poverty, ill health and fragility. Plumpness was the ideal. Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg2 points to the differences between past and present ideas of physical beauty. She writes, "in the twentieth century, the body has become the central personal project of American girls." Brumberg describes how the experience of living in an adolescent body is shaped by the historical moment. In the 1920s, adolescent females made attempts to restrict calories and lower their weight; this marked the first "dieting" period for American females. The "flapper dress," with its emphasis on showing off the legs, set the stage for the throwing off of corsets and subsequent restricted eating. Brumberg chronicles the dieting frenzy of a high school girl of that time: "I'm so tired of being fat! I'm going back to school weighing 119 pounds - I swear it. Three months in which to lose thirty pounds - but I'll do it - or die in the attempt." Brumberg also discusses how young girls' rising discontent with their appearance has reinforced a consumer culture catering to these insecurities throughout the 20th century. More recently, the rise in popularity of blue jeans has paralleled females' insecurities about their lower bodies - specifically the thighs and buttocks. The recent surge in popularity of cellulite remedies has added fuel to the fire. Many adolescent females are dating and sexually active at younger ages than before, heightening concerns about appearance.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.