It’s unfortunate but so many teens struggle with how they view their body. Their misperceptions of their body often lead to eating and other mental health disorders. To help understand where body image issues stem from, what type of impact body image issues can have on a teen and what type of help is available for a teen with body image issues, I have interviewed therapist Brittany Smith LCSW.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social work–both from the University of Arkansas. I’ve specialized in Eating Disorders for 8 years and have been in private practice for 6 years. I’ve written two programs about holistic weight management and work with the National Eating Disorders Association to raise awareness on body image issues and eating disorders.”
Where does body image issues stem from for most teens?
“The most influential “voice” in all of us is what we tell ourselves. We usually develop our main sense-of-self through our surroundings–usually family, friends, and our peer groups. If we are surrounded by groups who judge other people based on appearances, we will most likely judge ourselves based on appearances and comparisons. This can be especially harmful if we’re filling our brains with “skewed” imagery–such as media images, which may have been re-touched or may not even be “real.” Sometimes teens have heard their parents complain of being “too fat” or constantly dieting; this sets up a “not-good-enough” mindset in the child. Teens with a positive sense-of-self generally have fewer body image issues and higher self-esteem; however, those who base self-worth on looks/shape/or size (exterior things) feel insecure and anxious about having the need to achieve the “perfect” look to feel accepted. Since there’s no such thing as “perfect”, teens seeking perfection are at a greater risk for eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression.”
What type of impact can body image issues have on a teen’s overall life?
“Body image issues can make or break a teen’s life. When we compare and judge based on looks alone (ourselves or others), it can create a shallow existence. To make matters worse, focusing on a “problem area” can actually warp one’s perception to the point that s/he believes the certain area of the body is deformed or dysfuntional–this is what happens with body dysmorphic disorder. If a person believes s/he is unattractive, s/he is more likely to get involved in risky behaviors associated with low self-esteem (increased likelihood of drug & alcohol abuse, risky sexual behaviors, basing self-worth on meeting others’ expectations, development of eating disorders which can be deadly, etc.).”
What type of help is available for a teen that has body image issues?
“Lately, many strides have been made to help improve body image in teens and adults. The Dove Body Project is a good example of this (Dove soap commercials and ads urging us to “Love the Skin You’re In.”). The National Eating Disorder Association is also a great resource (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org). In Europe, media images must now say if they’ve been altered in any way so that consumers know they’re looking at a re-touched/airbrushed image; America hasn’t caught onto doing this yet, but advocacy groups are encouraging this. School counselors can be good resources, and in extreme cases (depression, anxiety, food problems), it’s a good idea to consult a therapist to address thinking and behaviors so that it doesn’t get to the point of becoming a life-threatening illness.”
What advice would you like to leave for teens that have body image issues?
“Nothing beats eating right and exercising with positive self-talk. If we are behaving like healthy people, we will look and feel healthy. If we’re judging ourselves based on looks and then trying to do unhealthy behaviors to manipulate our bodies, we will have a negative outcome EVERY time. Look at all the miraculous things our bodies can do: our legs can run; our hearts keep us alive; our bellies turn food into energy; our skin protects us; our arms allow us to hug our loved ones. Negative talk is hurtful to ourselves and to others; if we don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. Also, focus on the inside out. Every person is struggling with something, and every person has strengths and weaknesses. Notice what is going “right,” and focus on that.”
Thank you Brittany for doing the interview on body image issues in teens. For more information on Brittany Smith or her work you can check out her website on www.eathappy.org.
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