Having a healthy body image is important for teens. When body image is poor, teens are at risk for many different problems like mental health issues. Media and peers influence teen body image, often in a negative way. Over the long term, issues like teen drug abuse and eating disorders can result from poor body image and low self-esteem. Making sure that the teens in your life are able to form a healthy self-image is, therefore, very important to their long-term health.

What Is Body Image?

Teens and body image have a complicated relationship. Young people struggle with body image issues as much if not more than anyone as they prepare each day to walk around school and face judgment from their peers. “Body image” is a person’s perception of how they look, especially in relation to their peers. This can include their size, features and any slight quirks their face or body may have. No matter age or location, people develop certain opinions about their appearance.

While some teens have a positive body image, many young people carry around negative perceptions of themselves. Teen body image statistics show that poor self-image is sadly common. In a 2017 survey of girls aged 10 through 17 years old, 54% reported not having a positive body image. About 80% of girls with poor body image will avoid activities and events if they are not happy with how they look.

What Influences Body Image?

People develop their perceptions of body image from an early age — based on the world around them. It begins with family and friends, then continues with the media influence on body image from people on TV and in movies. By middle school and high school, people absorb hundreds of images a day. The trend of Instagram models and social media influencers has only made matters worse. This social media influence on body image exacerbates body image messaging from celebrities, models, and athletes.

The subconscious effects on a developing adolescent are enormous. Teenagers soak in these daily observations and use them as yardsticks for their own perceived attractiveness or physical health. Teens with social-emotional problems are more likely to have negative online experiences than their peers, especially on social media.

While magazines and other pop culture fixtures have been shaping body image for decades, younger generations are even more bombarded by images thanks to the pervasive use of technology. As of 2018, the following numbers show the impact of teen internet use:

  • About 95% of teens have their own smartphones or access to one, a number that has nearly doubled since 2012
  • About 45% of teens say they are almost constantly online
  • Around 70% of teens use social media more than once a day
  • Only 31% of teens say that social media has a mostly positive impact on their lives

Although social media addiction is not a medically recognized form of internet addiction at this time, researchers are starting to look at problems with excessive social media use in young adults.

Infographic that provides statistics on what influences teen body image

How Body Image Affects Teens

Struggling with body image is an unfortunate symptom of growing up. As children face the uphill battle of making friends, defining their personality and getting an education, they must also juggle the stressful and often irrational ideas of what they should look like.

Many children and teens feel overweight, underweight, pale, pimply or simply ugly. Some children start being worried about their weight and physical appearance as young as age five. A young person’s mind is fragile enough as it is — add in body image anxiety, and it can become a detriment that steers them down a grim path. In fact, 70% of girls admitted they have problems being assertive about their decisions when they have poor body image.

Making matters worse, body image can affect a person’s health. Concerns about weight lead nearly 3% of teens to develop an eating disorder such as:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder

In addition, to cope with the self-esteem issues of negative body image, teens may abuse drugs or engage in binge drinking. Teens engage in these activities in an attempt to:

  • Escape from feelings of low self-worth and depression
  • Increase confidence
  • Establish social contacts
  • Win approval from peers
  • Mimic the perceived attributes of “attractive” people (i.e. “fitting in”)
  • Lose inhibitions

Males vs. Females

Historically, dangerous body image ideals have been linked to females more than males. Unrealistic body standards for women are everywhere, which has a big impact on girls growing up. More than half of adolescent girls are dieting or trying to lose weight. Common body image concerns among girls include:

  • Feeling too tall
  • Weight
  • Breast size
  • Acne
  • Hip size

However, boys also feel pressure to look good in a world that glorifies attractiveness. Studies show that boys are mainly concerned with:

  • Hair
  • Clothes
  • How much they weigh
  • How tall they are
  • Acne

Both boys and girls can address body image issues in several ways, like:

  • Making a list of their positive traits
  • Focusing on their health and strength
  • Getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising
  • Reminding themselves that celebrity photos are often touched up
  • Remembering that beauty is on the inside
  • Making friends who accept them for who they are

Involving trusted adults can also help to treat body image issues in both boys and girls. School counselors are trained to help intervene on body image issues. They may be able to meet with the child one-on-one or even set up group sessions with students who have similar self-image issues. By meeting with peers who have similar issues, students not only learn self-esteem tips but also learn that they are not alone in feeling insecure.

Infographic that details how body image affects teens and males vs females specifically

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD, is a mental health problem in which a person obsesses about a perceived physical defect. Sufferers invest much time and energy into thinking about or attempting to remedy said flaw, which may be imagined to exist on skin, hair or certain body parts such as arms, breasts, the stomach, genitalia and more. Signs of BDD include:

  • Constantly thinking about a perceived body flaw
  • Excessively checking appearance in a mirror
  • Needing frequent reassurance about the perceived flaw
  • Wanting to see a doctor to correct with the perceived defect
  • Having mood changes related to the perceived flaw

More than 2% of people have BDD. This condition plagues people of all ages, but adolescents are especially vulnerable to BDD since teen body image is often fragile. Body dysmorphic disorder in adolescence frequently begins early and continues into adulthood. The average age of onset of BDD is 16 to 17 years old. Both males and females are equally likely to have BDD, and about half of people with BDD have a substance abuse problem. Some common substances abused in people with BDD include:

  • Alcohol, used by more than 42% of people with BDD
  • Cannabis, used by more than 30% of people with BDD
  • Cocaine, used by more than 9% of people with BDD
  • Opiates, used by more than 6% of people with BDD
  • Steroids, used by almost 2% of people with BDD

Substance abuse is not the only danger in BDD. In addition, BDD and eating disorders are linked. Studies show that nearly a third of people with BDD also have an eating disorder.

Mental health problems also pose a danger in BDD. Teens with BDD are more likely to think about suicide. Luckily, treatment for BDD is available and may include medications and counseling.

Infographic that provides statistics and signs of body dysmorphic disorder as well as co-occurring substance abuse

How Can Body Image Problems Lead to Drug Abuse?

Body image problems can lead to drug abuse in a couple of different ways. Even if a teen does not have BDD, they may use drugs and alcohol as an effect of negative body image. Teens may experiment with various kinds of substances to try to increase their self-esteem. For example, as of 2018, 1.3% of children through grade 12 had tried steroids. Steroid misuse may last for years: about 22% of steroid users start abusing the drugs as teens to become more muscular.

Teen addiction, or substance use disorder, is a diagnosable mental health problem. As of 2017, 4% of young people age 12 through 17 have a substance use disorder with alcohol or drugs. Underlying mental health issues, including negative body image and poor self-esteem, can increase the risk of addiction. Poor body image is linked to mental health problems like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In turn, these disorders can lead to self-harm and are even linked to teen suicide.

Does Your Teen Need Professional Addiction Treatment?

When your teenager shows signs of a mental health problem like BDD, an eating disorder or develops symptoms of substance abuse, it’s time to ask a doctor for help in assessing the situation. If your teen’s doctor finds that addiction or a mental health issue is present, they may advise your child to undergo therapy or a teen drug rehab.

Our experts at The Recovery Village are experienced in treating substance disorders that occur alongside mental health problems. If your teen requires special help to get clean and develop a positive self-image, we are here to help. Contact us to learn more.