Adolescents & Body Image Woes: I Can’t Sculpt My Body to Be Idea

Teen girl staring out a window thinking about bulimia

Body image is the way we perceive ourselves within our environment and space. It is how we feel, think, and act toward our body.

Body image can be positive or negative and plays a pivotal role in the development of an eating disorder, especially during teen years.

A study that looked at body satisfaction in females under the age of 18 found that body image satisfaction decreased when exposed to media images of severely thin and underweight people [1].

Perception of body image is also influenced by a person’s environment such as their family, peers, siblings, and sports/activities.

In another study that looked at the effect of negative body image and weight perception, it found that disordered eating and negative body image were heavily influenced by the way parents and peers talked about their own body and weight [1].

Body Image by Gender

Typically, changing body perceptions, body ideals, and values start to occur when adolescents are at a critical developmental stage in life. Many are going through puberty, mental and emotional changes, etc.

Girl struggling with body image

During this developmental phase, changes in body weight, shape, height, and body composition occur. There is often an increase in exposure to television, movies, media, and cultural ideals of beauty during these teens years.

Typically for girls, the emphasis is on being thin, and with physical changes of puberty comes adiposity, and changes in hip and breast size. Often, the reality of changes in the body varies from the images portrayed in society.

Boys are not immune from societal expectations either. Often, their body image is around height, muscle mass, and fat percentage.

Other changes such as personal identity, ideology, and interpersonal relationships increase in the adolescent years.

These changes have also been found to be related to body image satisfaction or dissatisfaction [1].

Negative body image is one of the central components of all types of eating disorders. Eating disorders can affect all areas and aspects of the body physically, emotionally and mentally, and EDs are the number one cause of death when compared to all mental health disorders [1].

Physical complications from an eating disorder can be damaged or strain into the esophagus, larynx, or voice box.

It can also include cardiovascular issues, amenorrhea (or cessation of one’s period), gastrointestinal issues and distress, tooth decay, reduced or compromised bone density, bowel and colon issues as well as electrolyte imbalances.

Research on the Matter

Many teens when feeling dissatisfied with their body image engage in disordered eating or eating disorder behaviors. They are unable to obtain their ‘perfect body’ shape and continue to strive for the ‘thin ideal.’

Girl looking in mirror

In a report by the American Association of University Women, it was found that adolescent girls tend to connect to the ‘way I look’ as the most crucial indicator of self-worth and for boys self-worth seemed to be related to ability and skill level, not appearance.

Teens on average watch 28 hours of television a week and almost 12 hours of all media types per day. This onslaught of unrealistic images can decrease one’s self-worth in qualities and place it on appearance.

From advertisements to toys, beauty is shown as a standard culturally to both girls and boys. All seem to have similar appearances. For girls, it is the image that you should be tall and slender, and for boys, it is tall and muscular.

Typically when looking at frequency of dieting and exercise behaviors in females, it has been shown that those who are exposed to fashion magazine images tend to report higher levels of dieting and exercise to reduce weight or change body shape [2].

Unrealistic Images

Most images in the media are unrealistic and are often photoshopped to promote a blemish-free, cellulite-free, and ‘perfect’ body. These unrealistic images are ones after which many youths are trying to model themselves.

Each person has a ‘set-weight’ that their body will achieve if it is adequately fed. It is the weight at which your body is most comfortable and wants to maintain.

Food, when ingested, is broken down into what it can use to protect and stimulate your body and what it can not use, or waste. When a person eats nutritionally dense or nourishing foods in healthy amounts, it is used as energy, healing, and promotion.

Having correct education around body image, proper nutrition, and exercise can help establish a positive body image. It can help to understand that pictures of individuals portrayed in the media are not realistic and no one person has a ‘perfect’ body.

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes which are varied due to environment, cultures, genetics, and personal behaviors. As children grow, puberty creates changes in the body which is a natural progression of growth and life.

Being able to educate yourself on positive body image, understanding that each person’s body is unique, and the differences between healthy and unhealthy care for yourself is essential in gaining respect and positive self-worth.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Voelker, D. K., Reel, J. J., & Greenleaf, C. (2015). Weight status and body image perceptions in adolescents: current perspectives. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from
[2] Croll, J. (n.d.). Body Image and Adolescents . In Guidelines for Adolescent Nutrition Sercies (pp. 155-166). Retrieved December 5, 2017, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 26, 2018.
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