What Every Teen Should Know About Body Image and Eating Disorders

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Few times in life feel more awkward in our own bodies than during our teen years. With all the changes your body goes through from middle school through college, it’s no surprise you might have doubts about your appearance or feel weird in your own skin.

Unfortunately, research suggests that feeling not so great about the way you look or a negative body image can have a big impact on our mental health — it can even lead to eating disorders. It’s hard for all of us to figure out what’s normal and what’s not, but especially during these years when we’re changing so rapidly. Maybe even more importantly, what can you do about poor body image?

What Affects Body Image?

Everyone has things about their bodies they’d like to change, but we’re usually too hard on ourselves. We want to fit in and be “normal,” attractive to ourselves and others.

People with a persistently negative body image often misread, or distort, their features in a way that other people don’t see. In other words, you don’t see yourself realistically compared to how other people see you. What you see in the mirror might not correspond with what’s actually there.

Distortions are a common problem with body image, and we tend to judge ourselves unfairly based on many things. Consider the following issues that influence how you think about your body image:

Cultural expectations

“Ideal” body type varies considerably depending on background. Some cultures value thin people, for example, while others favor a fuller figure.

Peer differences

If you feel you look different from most of the people you hang out with or go to school with, your body image might suffer.

Overall self-image

People who tend to have a general negative opinion of themselves, who suffer from low self-esteem in many other areas, may also feel unattractive or uncomfortable in their bodies.

Gender

Gender expectations pose challenges. Whereas girls are often expected to be thin and lithe, boys are expected to be muscular and strong. Society’s distorted expectations for your gender can cause body image worries.

How Does Body Image Relate to Eating Disorders?

If you’re not happy with something specific about how you look, naturally you might try to change things. You may buy new clothes or color your hair, perhaps add some new accessories to your look. If you’re not happy with overall appearance, however, you might try changing through diet and exercise.

Because body image concerns can reflect distortions in your thinking — say, you might think you look overweight when you’re actually within a healthy range for your height — then sometimes the changes you’d like to make also might not actually be healthy.

When your body image isn’t based in reality, you’re at risk for using extreme measures to take control. What starts as a simple diet or a plan to hit the gym a couple of times a week can develop into obsessive eating restrictions or extreme exercise.

As your body image gets less realistic, so do your thoughts about diet and exercise. People who suffer from eating disorders often view extreme eating or exercise habits as “normal,” because their view of themselves has gotten skewed. It’s as if they’re looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror, but they believe the warped unrealistic image they see. It doesn’t help that our culture is so focused on appearance and provides so many negative messages through TV and the media.

Keys to Positive Body Image

Good body image is key to good health, so don’t let inaccurate assumptions about yourself and your body lead you down a path toward an eating disorder. Consider these tips to feel better about your body.

Keep it realistic.

Be aware we’re prone to seeing our bodies a bit inaccurately. It can be hard to get an objective view from friends or family. But, if your doctor says you’re healthy, then you might have a self-esteem problem, rather than a body problem.

Focus on healthy, not artificial

Remember, advertising images and celebrities’ perfect selfies are often exaggerated, edited, or enhanced. Find legitimate ways to be healthy instead of striving to meet artificial standards.

Practice positive self-statements

If you’re constantly criticizing your body, in time you’ll believe those messages. Find things you like about yourself and think about those often. Practicing the positive will improve your confidence.

Find some support

Friends and family can be great supports, but sometimes they have their own unrealistic body image standards. If you consistently feel worse about your body rather than better when talking to them, consider talking to a trained and licenced therapist instead.

The majority of teens who struggle to feel good in their bodies will not develop eating disorders, but we know that most people who develop eating disorders struggle with distorted, negative body image. We also know that teens are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. Developing a positive body image during this time of physical change can really protect you from a difficult road — so don’t be afraid to reach out for help from a professional if you have any questions.

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