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Teen Body Image Dissatisfaction

by Eric Stice, Ph.D., Diane Spangler, Ph.D. & W. Stewart Agras, MD

Sadly enough, our culture promotes female role models that are underweight to the point of being pathologically thin. Some might even say that our culture idolizes role models who portray anorexia. Our children, teens and young adults are influenced by these role models by seeing them in glamorous situations on television, in magazines, on the Internet, in large display-ads at the mall, on billboards and in other public advertising venues. Immersed in a world filled with the ultra-thin role model, it is difficult for regularly-sized girls to feel good about themselves and their bodies. This is particularly rue when clothing manufacturers design the majority of their best fashions to fit small-sized bodies for teen and pre-teen girls. These role models and clothes-buying experiences have a profound impact on how both boys and girls feel about both younger and older girl's real bodies.

Previous research has shown that exposure to ultra-thin models in fashion magazines leads to excessive dieting and body dissatisfaction among adolescent girls. Only those girls who already had body-image problems were at risk for negative effects. The problem is, magazines are not the only source of this stimuli. This next study is an example os this kind of research.

Psychologists Eric Stice, Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin; Diane Spangler, Ph.D., Brigham Young University; and W. Stewart Agras, MD, Stanford University, randomly assigned 219 girls, ages 13 to 17, to a 15-month subscription to Seventeen magazine, which is the most widely read magazine among adolescent females, to a no-magazine control group and followed the girls for 20 months.

Despite the increased amount of time participants spent reading the fashion magazine, there were no effects on body dissatisfaction, thin-ideal internalization, dieting or negative affect over time. The only adverse effect occurred in adolescents with initially elevated body dissatisfaction: exposure to the fashion magazine resulted in increased negative affect/depression for these adolescents.

The researchers concluded that "findings indicate that the only at-risk individuals are those who already have body-image problems". Why the continued correlation between magazine models and eating disorders among teenage girls? "Perhaps high-risk individuals seek out thin-ideal media messages to learn more effective weight control techniques," said Dr. Stice. Another possibility is that the average girls who participated in a study that gave them access to Seventeen Magazine for 15 months realized how to answer questions on the post measures so as to avoid appearing "mental" to the researchers.

It is laudable that Dr. Stice cautions that previous studies should not be discounted. "I think the media reflects a larger cultural pressure for an ultra-slender body," said Dr. Stice. "Parents, peers and dating partners may play a somewhat more important role than the mass media because feedback from these sources about body size is more personal." When parents, peers and dating partners continually give disapproving messages about a young girl's body, she is most likely to succumb to these pressures at some point during her adolescence or young adulthood.

The defense against adolescent girls developing an eating disorder is a good offense. Parents can play the most important role. Demonstrating good eating habits at home and while eating otuside the home as parents, role modeling a health attitude toward food and their own bodies, and avoiding expression of how "disgusting" or "fat other people are can go a long way to help shape children's attitudes about partcular body sizes. Teaching children how to respect their bodies and stop eating when their bodies give them messages of being full is another challenge for parents who are often more preoccupied with whether or not their child finish what's on their plate, rather than whether or not their child has had enough food to carry them to the next meal.

Teaching children to notice the inner pang of being full is tricky, particularly with a finiky child who won't eat an adequare amount of food. But for others with good appetites, teaching them to respect that inner sign of fullness, despite the amount of food left on the plate is difficult for a parent, especially if much effort went into preparing the meal. Parents tend to force their children to eat what the parent labored to prepare, rather than saving it for another day. Children who love left-overs are a rare breed indeed!

Feeding children foods that are nutritious yet fun and enjoyable to eat is a big challenge and an unwanted daily chore for many parents. It's much easier to stop into KFC and pick up a bucket of wings and mashed potatoes that going home and cooking a nutritious meal that will appeal to both parents and children. Not allowing children to eat dessert when they haven't finished their meal is one time-tested and effective technique that has lost its prominence in today's world of tantruming children and hurried parents. Keeping the home free of cookies, cakes, candy ice cream, chips and other unhealthy snack foods is often as much of a challenge for the parent as it is for the child.

In addition to paying very close attention to food choices, the verbal and nonverbal feedback given to children and youths about bodies and body size is also important, but difficult in today's society. Joking about large people is rude, but the cruel norm. Telling children and young teens that they have their own special beauty, that they have the body they are meant to have, that they are normal despite the images they see in their world are small but significant ways that parents can shape their children's attitudes. Unfortunately, the ability for parents' to impart this crucial information is often lost when they allow themselves to make that hysterical 'fat-joke" that gets overheard by the lurking 10-year old; or when parents allow themselves to fret out loud about when their 12 year-old will "ever" lost that baby fat. Parenting is the toughest job in the world, with good reason.

This information received from the American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC.

Originally published 09/12/99
Revised 10/1/08 by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.
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