Teen Body Image


We’ve all seen ads in magazines and on television that present thinness as the epitome of desirability and fashion. Unfortunately, these ads are often directed toward young people and as a result, many teens form a mental image of what they think their body should look like that is unrealistic and unachievable.

This type of media consumption can have devastating consequences. Teens may develop a distorted body image, called body dysmorphia, or an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. The National Institute for Mental Health now estimates that 2.7 percent of 13 to 18-year-olds suffer from an eating disorder and that girls are more than twice as likely than boys to develop one.

“As a pediatrician, I am very troubled by the effect of body image issues on my teenage patients,” said Katherine Williamson, MD, pediatrician, Mission Hospital. “I see countless teens who are very concerned about their weight and how they look, and I see the negative physical, mental and emotional consequences on their health.”

Dr. Williamson provides the following recommendations to help reduce the risk of serious body image issues in teenagers:

If children at the age of 12 or 13 are suddenly talking about weight, looking in the mirror, focusing on their body and weighing themselves, this is a signal they may be overly self-conscious about their body image.

Teens should focus on living a healthy lifestyle without regard to the numbers on the scale. Encourage your teen to think about eating right and exercising, rather than comparing themselves to their friends or focusing on a number.

Talk with your children about what to expect when they enter puberty. It is especially important for girls to understand their body is going to change shape. If you can help them normalize and expect body changes, it will be easier for them to accept.

Treatment of eating disorders in teenagers can be complicated. It requires a team of experts that includes a pediatrician, nutritionist, psychologist, and sometimes psychiatrist, as the disorders negatively impact both mental and physical health — from anxiety and depression to malnutrition, organ dysfunction or even death. The family is also an integral part of this team, as both a motivator and to closely monitor the teen to ensure he or she stays on track. Another big challenge is access to these resources, which insurances often don’t cover and can be very expensive.

“Parents of teens who struggle with eating disorders need the combined efforts of pediatricians, specialists, mental health professionals and community partners,” Dr. Williamson said. “I see the work of my colleagues at Mission Hospital and the Orange County pediatric community coming together as a force for positive change in both the way teens perceive their bodies and in providing healing for body dysmorphia and eating disorders.”

If you sense that your teen is overly concerned about his or her weight, be sure to address these issues early with their pediatrician. To learn more about Mission Hospital’s Center for Adolescent Mental Health and Family Wellness, call (949) 499-8661.

Categories: Mental Health