25 August 2015
by Dr Jamilla Rosdahl
Extreme body focus is once again on the rise amongst young people, pre-teen and teen girls in particular. Many girls are showing high-risk signs such as reckless tanning, dieting, anxiety, self-harm, irritability and self-loathing. Experts agree that these behaviours are strongly linked to body obsession disorders and depression. Advertisements and social media relentlessly repeat messages about size, attractiveness, and beauty for consumer investment. Our younger generation is taking the brunt.
In fact, consumerism, fashion trends and social networks such as Twitter and Instagram largely influence a teen’s understanding of the self. This form of self-exploration and identification, is most frequently expressed through the use of the body. Some of the most popular social media trends surrounding identity include the ‘thigh gap’ challenge that encourages legs so thin, they don’t touch above the knees. Other trends include the ‘collarbone challenge’ which encourages its followers to balance Tictacs on their collarbones to ‘prove’ just how ‘skinny’ they are.
One of the latest trends, which emphasises the value of beauty, is the ‘Don’t judge’ challenge. In front of the camera, teens transform themselves from ‘ugly’ to their ‘true’ ‘beauty’ in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately, the attributes deemed most ‘unsightly’, are people with glasses, acne skin, or who have thicker eyebrows, distorted facial expressions or uneven teeth. The trend, supposedly, is to remind people not to ‘judge’ others by their ‘looks’ - but the underlying message is clear: external beauty matters and this new body obsession has some disastrous consequences.
A study published this year reveals that in Australia, eating disorders, (binge eating, purging, extreme diet restriction and obsessive thinking about body weight) are as high as 15% in girls and women and 3% in boys and men. Figures are likely to be much higher in the male population, but because of the stigma attached to eating disorders in males, many fail to report their struggles.
Other dangerous trends hitting the news include the ‘sunburntan’ or the ‘tan-tattoo’. On the Sunshine Coast especially, a place known for its beautiful beaches and sunny weather, some teens are raising concerns with their obsession for tanning. This latest trend involves body designs made intentionally by covering only a small section of skin with sunscreen, ink or fabric only to excessively burn the surrounding skin. This is similar to the ‘summer craze’ feeds on Instagram that encourage girls to post photos of their tanned bikini bodies or ‘holiday legs’ at the pool or beach. This sells the idea that a ‘sun-kissed glow’, bright, white smile and a slim body are the definition of health, beauty and happiness.
The trend has alarmed the Skin Cancer Foundation. Earlier this month, they released a statement emphasizing that sunburns lead to severe skin damage, advanced skin aging, and a lifetime risk of skin cancer. It stresses that children who have suffered five or more blistering sunburns, can increase their lifetime melanoma by as much as 80%.
As parents and caretakers, we have to understand the strong connection between social trends, consumerism and teens’ attitudes to identity and body image. Young people are forced to negotiate their sense of self not only between popular culture and parents, school social groups, and different sub-cultural labels (such as ‘surfy’, ‘sporty’, ‘brainy’ etc.) but also their own in-group peers. The early years of a persons’ life is a time when the mind is learning and maturing but it’s also a time when it’s the most easily influenced.
Here's some ways you can help your teen gain a healthier body image and sense of self:
- Have open conversations with your teen.
Raise questions about their fears, challenges, experiences and ideas. Many teens share thinspirational’ and ‘tan-inspirational’ images on social media. Help your teen challenge these images by asking questions like, how do you feel like when you look at these images? How do you think other teens feel like when they see these? Do you know of any friends that struggle with body image and poor self-esteem? Remember, you are your teen’s best sounding board
- Try to reduce weight talk in the home.
Growing research shows that parents and caretakers play an enormous role in their children’s attitude to body image, body size and eating behaviours. Excessive talk about weight and dieting within the family, is linked to disordered eating, depressive feelings, self-criticism and weight obsessions in teens. Try to make meal times relaxing, enjoyable and an opportunity to connect. Avoid bringing your teen into conversations about weight concerns or diets
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude about exercise and body.
Encourage daily family exercises such as running in the park, swimming, surfing, or backyard soccer. As adults, we have a responsibility to stay informed and to pass on our understanding of the world to the younger generation. Make today the time to foster a healthier body attitude in your teen.
About the author:
Dr Jamilla Rosdahl is a gender an interdisciplinary researcher and lecturer in sexuality and gender studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast.