It’s almost an understatement to say that teenagers today are obsessed with the way they look. Often this obsession revolves around being sexy. Unfortunately, the media’s standard for “sexy” is unachievable without surgery, professional makeup teams, and diet pills. One study reports that by age 13, 53 percent of American girls are unhappy with their bodies.[i] This number grows to 78 percent by the time the girls reach 17.[ii]
Our teenagers are being targeted by consumer advertisers and teen magazines pushing the latest fashions on rail-thin models, many of whom have been surgically altered, digitally manipulated, or air-brushed. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that more than one in three articles in leading teen girl magazines included a focus on appearance, and most of the advertisements used an appeal to beauty to sell their products.[iii] In-depth interviews with girls ages 12 and 13 who were regular readers of teen magazines found that girls used the magazines to formulate their concepts of femininity and relied heavily on articles that featured boys’ opinions about how to gain male approval and act in relationships with males.[iv]
As I touched on last week, insecurity, teenage angst, emotional issues, and an overemphasis on appearance can lead many teenagers to develop eating disorders. Over one-half of all teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.[v]
The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. But other eating disorders—like binge eating, food phobias, and extreme obsession with certain body parts (such as a nose or thighs)—are also becoming more common.
Teenagers who are anorexic often have an intense fear of being overweight. Many anorexic teenagers believe they are fat, regardless of how skinny they actually are. They often weigh food before eating it or compulsively count calories. They may only eat certain foods, weigh themselves repeatedly, or exercise excessively. Because anorexia is a mental disorder, teenagers who struggle with anorexia are often immune to people telling them that they are not fat.
People who are bulimic will often restrict what they eat in public, but binge in private. After eating, they will withdraw to a bathroom to “purge” (throw up) the food they’ve consumed. They may also use laxatives, diuretics, or enemas. Like people who struggle with anorexia, bulimic teenagers may over exercise to work off the calories from their binges.
Eating disorders are curable, but usually professional help is needed. Eating disorders tend to be associated with a mental imbalance of some sort. If you suspect your son or daughter is struggling with an eating disorder, talk to your youth group leader or pastor about finding a Christian counselor who specializes in this area.
[i]‘“Body Image and Gender Identity.” “Media Effect on Girls.” September 6,Sep. 2002. National Institute on Media and the Family. 22 Jan.January 22, 2009.
[iii] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Tweens, Teens and Magazines Fact Sheet” (2004). Retrieved from kff.org/entmedia/7152.cfm; Nancy Signorelli, “A Content Analysis: Reflections of Girls in the Media,” The Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now, April 1997.
[iv] Lisa Duke and Peggy Kreshel, “Negotiating Femininity: Girls in Early Adolescence Read Teen Magazines,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 22, No. 1 (1998), 48-72.
[v] M.E. Eisenberg, D. Neumark-Sztainer, M. Story, and C. Perry, “The Role of Social Norms and Friends’ Influences on Unhealthy Weight-Control Behaviors Among Adolescent Girls.” Social Science and Medicine, 60 (2005): 1165-1173.
[vi] Carolyn J. Cavanaugh and Ray Lemberg, Eating Disorders: A Reference Sourcebook (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1999).