In the era of gym selfies and social media filters, we are flooded more than ever with messages about how we should look.
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That exposure can be especially tough for adolescents, who are experiencing dramatic changes in their bodies at a time when they’re also developing their values and self-concepts. More so, adolescent girls tend to report higher levels of body image dissatisfaction than boys and seem to be more at risk for the negative consequences of internalizing these messages.
When young girls internalize society’s pressures to be thin, they are more at risk for body image dissatisfaction, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, says psychologist and body image researcher Dr. Leslie Heinberg, PhD.
So, as a parent, understanding where those pressures come from can help you offer support and know what questions to ask. Here are four directions that research points to.
The impact of social media on body image is a burgeoning area of research, Dr. Heinberg says. A recent study she worked on uncovered that college-aged women in four Western countries felt the most pressure to be thin from what they saw in the media, which includes traditional media and social media.
“When somebody posts a selfie, that teenager may take 15, 30 or even 40 pictures and then pick the one where they look best. But then everybody else is doing social comparison and thinking, ‘She’s so beautiful,’ or ‘She’s so thin – why don’t I look like that?’” Dr. Heinberg explains. “That’s reinforcing unrealistic expectations.”
Another recent study found that teen girls who used filters on their social media photos had greater body image and eating concerns.
Friends and peers
Whether they’re being teased about their appearance or critiquing a classmate’s new outfit, adolescents – and the way they think about their own appearance – are greatly influenced by peers. In Heinberg’s study, U.S. women ranked peers as the second-greatest source for body image pressure, behind media.
That’s troubling because social comparison is linked to higher levels of body dissatisfaction.
It’s also troubling because teens who are teased about their weight are more likely to become obese adults, struggle with body image and develop unhealthy eating behaviors.
Overhearing negative body talk
“Do I look fat in this?” It might seem like a harmless question, but overhearing a parent criticize his or her own body can reinforce a child’s beliefs of a thin ideal. In one study, young women who overheard fat talk within their families were less likely to eat mindfully and appreciate their bodies.
“Children model what we do,” Dr. Heinberg says. “If you’re telling your kids that they’re beautiful just the way they are, but then they hear you constantly talking yourself down about your own body, that’s a very big mixed message.”
Hormones and puberty
Height, weight, body composition, sex characteristics – they’re all changing as girls mature. And those who do so earlier than their peers may be especially vulnerable to developing negative body image.
“Research has shown for decades that for girls, being early bloomers is a risk factor for body image disturbance, eating disorders, obesity and psychological difficulties,” Dr. Heinberg says. “They get a lot of unwanted attention, and they don’t fit in with their peers at a time when adolescents want to be just like everybody else.”
Make home a safe space
The most fundamental thing parents can do to help their kids build a healthy body image is to make home a safe place that is judgment-free for both kids and parents, Dr. Heinberg says.
Talking about the images and messages girls see in the media is another good step. “I think taking time to watch TV together and to look at images together and talk about how things were airbrushed or how someone had their makeup professionally done can help kids become good, smart consumers of media,” she says.