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Concerns over body image outrank school and stress for girls in Australia

Occasionally, media critics will get told that they take advertisements too seriously, and that messages being sent through various media channels aren’t that strong or meaningful. I know I have faced this accusation many times, and have been told that I’m either over-analyzing or am too sensitive.

I’ve also been told that teens and adolescents are able to tell the difference between reality and advertisements – that, for example, girls know that lots of companies photoshop their models and that no one is that skinny/tall/busty, or has such flawless skin/hair/clothing.

I’ve long believed that understanding these differences is irrelevant – the exposure that adolescent girls (and boys!) face day in and day out from shows, commercials, billboards, and ads really builds up and has an impact. Luckily, research has helped to prove us media critics right.

One recent study in particular, out of Australia, has determined the number one concern of girls between 11 – 24 years (most between 11 – 19). Any guesses, fellow media literates? Yep: body image.

Really?! I’m shocked. They’re telling us that girls are more preoccupied with body image, and are experiencing such dissatisfaction that it has become their number one concern? Perhaps they’ve been overexposed to the culprits in our gallery of offenders.

And guess what else? Since Australia began administering this survey in 2006, this is the highest that body image has ranked as a concern for adolescents. What I think is most interesting is that body image ranked so low years ago that it wasn’t even considered a real problem until 2006, when 28% of girls said it was a top three concern – now that figure is 42.5%.

Like a bad virus, the concern almost seemed to catch on and multiply, flourishing among girls. So, in other words…we’re going backwards. Things are getting worse.

Here’s something else really interesting: suicide, sexuality, and self-harm were all issues that decreased in concern. Which, of course, is great. However, something that shouldn’t be forgotten is that real body dissatisfaction and disordered eating have strong relationships with all three of those behaviors. So, if we’re seeing an increase in concerns about body image, then those suffering most may soon show struggles with suicide, sexual behavior, and self-harm.

In case you were hoping for different results in the United States, don’t hold your breath. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a similar survey that they administer to 12 – 19 year old girls and boys in the U.S. every other year, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

And…drum roll, please: In 2009, the YRBS showed that a third of girls considered themselves overweight or obese, while in reality not even one fourth of them were. As early as the fifth grade, some girls report feeling that their peers and families have concerns about their weight, and soon begin to develop poor body image and even shame.

Need more proof? In 1993, only 3% of adolescents used diet pills to control their weight, and only 2% self-induced vomiting. But guess what happened only a decade later? In 2003, those numbers had shot up – 7.4% of teens were using diet pills and 5.2% were self-inducing vomiting to lose weight. Down under is most definitely not alone.

The last line of the Australian article is not a throw-away, for a couple reasons. It’s fantastic that two-thirds of the girls who were surveyed felt optimistic about the future, showing great resilience. Combating body dissatisfaction can be a daily challenge, and why it’s troubling that 20% of them felt they had no one to talk to about these concerns, and why the kinds of conversations we have here are so important.

Peers and families can play a protective role, and girls with friends who support healthy exercise and eating behaviors are more likely to report high body satisfaction. That’s the kind of contagiousness we’re looking for.


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