Effects Of Negative Body Image On Young People

While poor body image is an ‘equal opportunity offender’ which doesn’t discriminate between genders, it has historically been associated with being more of a women’s issue. Therefore, discussions about negative body image have typically been focussed on females. While unhealthy body image is still a major epidemic among young girls – with 9 out of 10 girls wishing they could change the way they look [2] – the rise of social media has led to an increase in the rates of male body-dysmorphia as well. In fact, since 1999, hospitalisations for youth eating disorders have spiked by more than 112% [5].

The Effects Of Negative Body Image On Young People

The effects of negative body image on young people can vary, but it is often a risk factor in the development of anxiety and depression. Other possible effects of negative body image include:

  • Eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, or binge-eating

  • A tendency to exercise compulsively/excessively

  • Low self-esteem

  • A predisposition to physical disability

  • A tendency to self-sexualise or self-commodify

  • Substance abuse

One of the most common side effects of negative body image in young people is the development of an eating disorder. “Although girls are most at risk of eating disorders, boys can also develop them. Boys sometimes go untreated for longer because parents and health professionals aren’t looking for body image and eating problems in boys.” Males with eating disorders tend to be older, have greater rates of other psychiatric problems (such as anxiety, depression, and substance use), and engage in more suicidal behaviours than females with eating disorders [1].

How Social Media Exacerbates The Effects Of Negative Body Image

“The media can act like a powerful peer, making certain (risky) behaviours and aesthetics seem normative.” [2]

People being judged or, perhaps more accurately, favoured or ‘liked’ by others on the basis of their figures is nothing new. Centuries ago, being plump and full-figured was considered most desirable because it symbolised superior wealth and means, whereas being skinny or emaciated was a symbol of poverty. There is also a widely shared belief among historians and anthropologists that men used to favour mating with full-figured women with curves as this suggested fertility and nourishment, indicating superior reproductive genes and less likelihood of dying in childbirth [4].

Since the industrial revolution and introduction of modern medicine, people have not needed to rely so much on their more primitive instincts. While there is no prescribed ‘ideal’ body type, and people possess a diversity of preferences, it can often seem as if modern society favours thinness in women and brawn in men. Despite there being no compelling proof that this is the universal standard of physical attractiveness, this concept has been indoctrinated by modern media; “The trend in the early 21st century for both boys and girls to self-sexualise in their visual online presentations suggests a more general phenomenon of ‘self-commodification’. Most of the time this is probably unconscious, as a result of the internalisation of media images.” [3]

It is widely theorised that children have an innate tendency to be motivated by comparison with others. While previously children may have modelled themselves against other people within their peer groups, nowadays they are repeatedly exposed to heavily edited, filtered and perfected images of people through social media, and they are both internalising and aspiring to these false and idealised representations of beauty [2]. As a result of this, 45% of teenage girls and 24% of teenage boys worry about other people posting ugly photos of them on social media.

This is evident in the way that young people visually self-present on social media. According to a 2015 study into teens’ self-presentation in social media, “teenagers’ main criterion for choosing profile photographs is a belief that they look good in them.” The same study also found that, while girls place more emphasis on being attractive, seductive, or suggestive, “…photo choices among male teens were more varied, including dominant, idealized, and affiliative behaviours” [3].

Protecting Your Child From The Effects Of Negative Body Image

Experts recommend that parents make a conscious effort to avoid ‘fat talk’ in front of their children [5]. Parents should also try and take advantage of opportunities to discuss body image when they present themselves; perhaps after seeing an advert on TV in which all of the models embody the stereotypical ‘ideal’ body for a male or female. Here are some examples of discussion opportunities:

  • How do you feel when you see a photo of yourself or one of your friends that’s been changed?

  • Do you or your friends’ rate, comment on or talk about each other’s photos? How does it feel to get a low rating or a negative comment? How does it feel to get a high rating or a positive comment?

  • What makes a picture look good? What things about a picture make it likely to get more “likes” or get shared more often?

  • What are some of the tricks you or your friends use for making pictures look good?

  • Do you think your friends change their photos before posting them? Why do you think people post them?

  • Do you follow any celebrities on social media? How do they make you feel about yourself?


1. Raising Children, 2017. Body image: pre-teens and teenagers.

2. Common Sense Media, 2015. Children, teens, media, and body image: A common sense media research.

3. Susan C. Herring, 2015. Teens, gender, and self-presentation in social media. International encyclopedia of social and behavioural sciences.

4. Nigel Barber, 1995. The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness: Sexual selection and human morphology. Ethology and Sociobiology. Volume 16, Issue 5, pp. 395-424.

5. Dove Self Esteem Project, 2015. Uniquely Me. A parent’s guide to building girls’ body confidence.

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