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Poor Body Image in Teens is Linked to Depression, Study Confirms

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Being a teenager is tough for most children, as they struggle to figure out their place in the world while processing the effects of raging hormones. Add low self-esteem and poor body image, and depression becomes a very real risk.

A study from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) published in BMJ Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health confirmed this link between body dissatisfaction and depression in adolescents and young adults. 

What the Study Showed 

For the study, 2,078 females and 1,675 males in the U.K. were assessed at age 14, then again at 18. At 14, 32% of girls and 14% of boys were not happy with their weight, and 27% of girls and 14% of boys did not like their overall body shape. The girls were most concerned about their stomachs and thighs, and boys were concerned about their builds, stomachs, and hips. These findings were true regardless of whether or not they had a higher BMI. 

Elizabeth Wassenaar, MD

Adolescents are often dealing with bodies that are changing quickly as they mature and feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

— Elizabeth Wassenaar, MD


Those same children who were dissatisfied at 14 showed mild, moderate, and severe depressive symptoms when they were reevaluated at 18. The girls were more likely to have severe depression, while the boys experienced mild or moderate depression. 

According to the study's co-authors, “The findings demonstrate that body dissatisfaction should be considered as a public health issue of pressing concern. Body dissatisfaction is highly prevalent among young people in the general population and has an increasing incidence; the findings indicate that reducing body dissatisfaction might be an effective strategy to reduce mental health issues.” 

Factors that Lead to Negative Body Image 

According to Elizabeth Wassenaar, MS, MD, CEDS, there are many factors that play into negative body image. She explains, “Externally, cultural expectations and ideals on what makes a body valuable permeates our world. Messages from their peers, family, coaches, and others are very important to teenagers. Internally, adolescents are often dealing with bodies that are changing quickly as they mature and feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. They may be experiencing that people are noticing their body changing, which makes things even more intense.”

There is no doubt that peers can impact a child’s self-esteem, as well as the effects of being inundated by images of “perfect” bodies. Pew Research found that 95% of teens have smartphones, and 45% are online “almost constantly.”  This could lead to the comparison trap, as most people show the best aspects of their lives on their platforms, not their flaws.

What's more, 2014 research from the Today Show and AOL found that 80 percent of teenage girls compare themselves to celebrities and models.  It is no surprise that 34 percent of high school girls reported that they experienced symptoms of depression in the last year. 

Study authors

Body dissatisfaction is highly prevalent among young people in the general population and has an increasing incidence; the findings indicate that reducing body dissatisfaction might be an effective strategy to reduce mental health issues

— Study authors

While the role of peers and the media may be obvious, parents may not realize their role, or how their self-criticisms can affect their children. Girls ages 5-8 notice their mother’s dissatisfaction, and it directly impacts their own.

Wassenaar, who is the regional medical director of the Eating Recovery Center, explains, “Notice when you talk to yourself about what you deserve or earn based on your size or shape or exercise. Notice if you devalue yourself in front of your children, either explicitly, like looking in the mirror and saying you dislike something, or implicitly, by holding yourself back from doing something fun because you dislike your body." 

Wassenaar continues, "If you hold yourself back from playing with them or having fun, it tells them that you are not worthy of having fun because your body is not acceptable and ties together your experience of your body with your experience of the world.”

How to Encourage Body Positivity in Teens 

Wassenaar recommends, after parents have assessed the messages they unintentionally send their children, beginning to use sticky note affirmations on mirrors to make sure parents are saying neutral or positive things about their bodies.

She explains, “Start with acknowledging and naming where things are now. Many people are in a position of believing that body hatred is normal and that their value is intrinsically tied to how their body looks and what it does for others. They may have never asked the question, ‘How do I feel about my body?’, ‘What do I want my body to do for me?'” 

Another tactic is switching body hatred to body neutrality. “It can feel kind of silly at first, but you can begin to build on those neutral statements with body autonomous statements like, ‘my thighs are strong and let me play soccer.’ Practice noticing how your body benefits you and lets you do things you value and one will begin to separate your value from what others think your body should be.”

If this is a tough practice, Wassenaar also suggests, “Practice noticing things ​that others like about you – like you give great hugs, you are clutch under pressure, you always know how to calm down your sister when she is upset, you can make your friends laugh.” She suggests writing them down and using those for mirror affirmations. “Then they have to see and remind themselves about these things every time they look at themselves. Start adding things you like about your body and ​what you find worthy. If this is too hard at first, ask trusted​,​ support people​, like ​parents, friends, ​and ​coaches​,​ to help you come up with some starting places.”

What This Means for You

An adolescent’s self-esteem is impacted long before they are even 13. Parents should work on encouraging a celebration of what the body can do versus what it looks like, by first focusing on one in themselves. A strong sense of self-worth begins at home. 

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