Most teens struggle with body image issues at some point in their lives. Social media, media, and advertising all play a big role in undermining everyone’s self-confidence, and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this problem.
Body image issues can affect self-esteem and mental health in a big way. Media that glamorizes thinness, for example, can make many teen girls or boys feel like they’ll never measure up to societal standards of beauty. Instagram influencers posting pictures of themselves pose in ways to hide their flaws and don’t usually admit that they often use retouching and filters in their photos. It can be hard to remember that when you start comparing your perfectly normal body to theirs. You start to forget that those images are not accurate presentations of the typical human body. Add in the fact that the adolescent years and onset of puberty can bring many physical changes that often lead to feelings of insecurity. Transgender and non-binary gender teens can experience a host of unique issues, especially if they are struggling to learn to live in a body that they don’t feel represents their true selves.
There is also body dysphoria, which is physical discomfort around the appearance of the body. For example, a transmasculine teen could feel self-critical about gaining weight because the weight is distributed in a way that makes them appear more curvy.
Social Dysphoria is another issue that can come up, which is the discomfort around how society perceives and labels your gender. This is where a non-binary person who is often gendered in public as she/her could as a result experience self-doubt and discomfort.
Here are some tips to help you cope with, and hopefully overcome, body image disorders:
Limiting your exposure to advertising and media. Stop reading magazines that center on appearance and consider unfollowing certain celebrities and influencers on social media, especially if you notice that you don’t feel good about yourself after looking at their content. It can be helpful just to take a break, even if it’s just for a little while, and see if you feel a difference.
Looking for positive role models. Celebrities like singer/rapper Lizzo and plus-size model Tess have brought body positivity into the mainstream conversation over the last few years. Look for body positive role models and see if you can find one or two that inspire you.
Getting real about health. While weight is not a good indicator of health, there are major health issues that can come with being too thin. If you find that you often get down on yourself about your weight, try to remember that the ideal body weight isn’t always determined by body mass index. Sometimes it’s about what is realistic for you to maintain, and where you feel your best and strongest. Your ideal body weight will also change as you continue to grow, and depending on what stage you are at in your life.
Being mindful of self talk. Be careful what you say about your body. It hears you when you talk! Make it a point to avoid negative self-talk. This will also help you set a good example for the people around you who might also be struggling with similar issues. A good question to ask yourself if you struggle with negative self-talk is “Would I ever speak this way to another person?” If the answer is no, it’s probably time to bring awareness so that you can catch yourself in the moment. For example, instead of saying “I need to lose weight,” you might change that to, “I’m looking forward to exercising today so that I can have more energy.” That makes it less about how you look and more about taking better care of yourself so that you can feel good.
Speaking of exercise, if you want to incorporate it into your life, start small with manageable goals. Making little changes, like adding a 15 minute walk to your day, or cutting out sugary drinks, can lead to great things as long as you’re consistent about it. This will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed. If you need support in forming healthy new habits when it comes to eating well and exercising, talk to a trusted adult, or look for resources online. Keep your eating and exercise goals centered around what you feel like, instead of what you look like.
Remembering that most people aren’t judging you. Do you ever find yourself worrying what other people think about you? Try to remember that most people feel the same way. In all likelihood, they’re thinking the same thing - worrying what everyone else thinks about them! And speaking of other people, make sure that you are making good choices when it comes to friends. Real friends lift you up. They don’t make mean comments or jokes about what you look like. If you have people in your life that do this to you, and they won’t stop even after you have told them it hurts your feelings, consider putting some distance between yourself and them. Frame it as you taking care of yourself. You deserve to be around people who are kind to you. If it’s not a simple solution to just stay away from them, remind yourself that people who make mean comments about your looks are doing that because they feel bad about themselves. Sometimes people need to put others down to make themselves feel better. It doesn’t make it ok or acceptable, and you do not have to tolerate that kind of treatment. If you’re experiencing bullying, please tell someone and seek support. If it’s happening at school, adults need to step in and put a stop to it.
Leaning into your support system. Pay attention to the people in your life who show up for you, have your back, and tend to be positive and kind. Make sure you let them know when you are grateful for their support, and be there for them when they need it.
If you don’t feel good about yourself, it can lead to body image issues. That can lead to more serious problems, such as body dysmorphic disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines body dysmorphic disorder as: “a mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others. But you may feel so embarrassed, ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.”
People who struggle with this disorder are at risk for potentially dangerous problems, such as eating disorders, and may need therapy or even medication. It’s important to seek the health of a qualified professional if this is something you think you may be struggling with.