A recent study published in the UK sheds light on the growing number of adolescents who are concerned with their weight. The Schools and Students Health Education Unit (SHEU) has been conducting the survey since 1977, which asks students over 100 health-related questions. More than 93,000 young people took part in the survey, 68,000 of whom were 10 to 15 year olds.
Nearly two thirds (63 percent) of 14 and 15 year old girls said they ‘would like to lose weight.’ Last year that number was 58 percent. According to the report, 54 percent of 12 and 13 year old girls and 37 percent of 10 and 11 year old girls wanted to shed some pounds as well. The numbers were not as high for boys, with just under one in three 14 and 15 year olds wanting to lose weight. The findings also show a trend in young people skipping meals.
The results are troubling to Sarah Spence, national communications and fundraising manager at The Butterfly Foundation, a not-for-profit that is dedicated to supporting people with eating disorders and negative body image issues. Spence points to a similar survey done annually in Australia, which last year found that 43 percent of 15 to 19 years old females were concerned with body image, compared with 18.6 percent of males.
“As in previous years, the level of concern regarding body image among Australia’s young people remains high,” the report states.
Spence explains how young people worried by their weight and body shape can sometimes be susceptible to detrimental behaviour if the problem persists.
“If they have low self-esteem and poor body image, that very much can translate into an eating disorder down the track if it’s not intercepted fairly quickly,” warns Spence.
More young people are suffering from eating disorders, which Spence notes can be partly explained by the simple fact that more people are aware of them. And with greater understanding of the seriousness and complexity of eating disorders, more people are presenting themselves for treatment at hospitals.
But Spence believes there’s another reason for the uptick in those who are suffering: the countless negative messages young people are receiving about their bodies on a daily basis.
“We are in a society which really values people’s looks, values celebrity status and values material things,” Spence says. She contends our current social media-filled, “instantaneous lifestyle” gives young people even greater access to images with negative messages.
“Often the media, and what young people are hearing through the media and images of celebrities, is that ‘I am not worthy or acceptable unless I look like a size two,’” she says.
To combat the countless harmful influences that may prompt poor body image in adolescents, Spence points to preventative programs for students run by The Butterfly Foundation and other similar organisations. Workshops in schools have been successful, with discussions centring around positive self-esteem, body image and self-perception.
Media literacy is an important part of the program, which involves analysing the pages of popular glossy magazines, pointing out the ubiquity of photoshopping, airbrushing and “the pitfalls of looking at the media and presuming that that’s exactly what everyone should look like,” as Spence puts it.
First and foremost The Butterfly Foundation tells young people they are not valued by they way they look or their body shape and size. Next they focus on the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Spence says young people are encouraged to develop healthy eating and exercise habits and to “have the best possible healthy body you can without going to extremes.”
Some students surveyed may be excessively overweight, hence their concern. And Spence says for these kids, weight management is crucial, as is ensuring the pendulum doesn’t swing the other way. “Eat healthy and exercise but not to either extreme,” she insists.
But how can the rest of us help?
It’s not just young people who need to be educated. If we want to see the rate of eating disorders go down, parents, teachers, health workers and adults in general need to modify how they talk about physical appearances, especially around adolescents and teens.
“It’s really important to be a good body image for that young person,” explains Spence, “because they really listen to what’s coming out of our own mouths as adults, as parent, as mentors.”
“It’s all about having positive messages and comments about your own body so you are modelling to them that you love and accept your own body and you aren’t valued by how you look or your body shape and size.”
To educate parents, counsellors and others on body image and eating disorder issue, The Butterfly Foundation holds training workshops where staff go over the warning signs that might lead to an eating disorder. Talking about diets, counting calories, excessive exercise or dramatic weight loss or weight change are all signs something may be wrong. If a he or she is “withdrawing from social events around food,” that could be another indicator.
Ultimately, engaging with young people about their own body perception and being aware of any serious behavioural shifts is essential in being able to determine if and when intervention is necessary—before a mild concern spirals into something much more dangerous.
For more on The Butterfly Foundation programs visit their website, where you will also find resources for young people, parents and professionals.