Breaking Body Image Barriers

Michele L. Clerici

16-year old, Christina Catalani, doesn’t diet.  She doesn’t watch her weight.  She’ll admit that she eats from the time she wakes up in the morning to the time she goes to bed at night.  Her mother says that when Christina has her girlfriends over they eat faster than she can put food out for them.  “I don’t mean they just have some chips and dip, I mean they eat!” she says.  Christina is pretty satisfied with her body and she seems to think that most of her friends feel the same way.   

Then her mother begins to talk about a certain girl that used to be part of the clique.  “She would come here to hang out and while the other girls were eating, she would just sit there.  I would ask her if she wanted something to eat and she would say, ‘No thanks, I’ll just have a glass of water.’  She must have been a closet eater, though, because she gained weight little by little and then over the summer, she just stopped hanging out with the girls.  I never see her anymore.” 

It seems that Christina might represent the average high school girl while her girlfriend  represents the unhappy and unfortunate minority.  Is it surprising, then, that according to recent body image research, two-thirds of all high school females are either dieting or planning to diet?  This means that more than half of all high school age girls are dissatisfied with their weight, with the seeds of dissatisfaction rooted during the preadolescent years (7-12), and sometimes tracing as far back as five years of age. 

Body image and the changing standards of society are certainly not new ideas; however, as teens seem to be growing up much faster in today’s media-driven world, the pain of self-hatred and a lack of self-confidence are becoming more and more real for them.  Some may say that the pressure of having a “perfect body” is so overwhelming in today’s society, that it has become the majority of what teenage girls think about on a daily basis. 

“I think that girls my age, and in my high school, think about their body image non-stop,” says Erin Keane, a high school freshman.  Erin attends Washington Township public high school and feels strongly about the need for girls her age to obsess about their weight and body image.  Her sister, Catlynn, a senior, shares a similar perspective.  “I think that body image is important to girls in my school.  The people I go to school with are very superficial and image is all they think about,” she says. 

As far as the dieting habits of the two girls, neither claim to be concerned with them, only with being healthy.  However, both have noticed the image-driven eating habits of friends and other classmates.  “I don’t feel it’s necessary to diet, because I don’t over-eat and I’m phyisically active.  On the other hand, many of my friends feel its necessary to diet because they think they’re fat, when in fact, they weigh less than me… but just have less self-confidence,” says Erin.   

The extremity of this obsession with dieting and trying to attain a perfect body can be seen in the increasing numbers of girls diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, and various other eating disorders.  These cases are still considered a small minority in the face of the “average” teen girl.  Nonetheless, two-thirds of high school age females diet or plan to diet, revealing the “average” teenage girl as one who is considerably dissatisfied with her body and often taking unhealthy risks as a means of overcoming this lack of confidence.   

Studies have even shown that girls who try to lose weight are more likely to gain weight over time, making the challenge to meet such high standards practically impossible.  “All of the girls in my school are perfect and I am the opposite,” says Catlynn.  She also says that many of her friends feel it necessary to diet, but can never fully “go through with it because they always get hungry.”  Add together the constant hunger and lack of energy that comes with dieting, and the barrage of constant food-related media experienced on a daily basis, and the result is a formula for failure.   

Most teenage girls are not even remotely aware of the dangers associated with dieting.  Aside from the physically and nutritionally harmful aspects, are the mentally detrimental effects.  By limiting calorie intake, the body is deprived of essential body chemicals that regulate brain activity, moods, and emotions, leaving dieters at a higher risk of depression. 

When asked about female celebrities they most admire, all three girls mentioned singers or actresses who exude the standards of perfect body image.  Christina chose Ashanti because of her “sex appeal,” Erin chose Jennifer Garner for her beauty and “muscular build,” and Catlynn chose Cher for her ability to look “awesome” even though she is “fifty-something.”

 Does the media hold sole responsibility, then, for the way that young girls are obsessed about their inability to achieve such perfection?  These three teenagers seem to agree that the biggest influence on their self-image is television, movies, magazines, and music.  “Reading beauty magazines make me feel like I need to better myself, like I’m not good enough the way I am.  I feel determined to ‘fix’ what’s wrong with me, even though nothing’s really wrong… it’s just not ‘perfect,’” says Erin.  And while Christina considers herself pretty self-confident, she is a witness to the influence of media on other girls who are “worried about their bodies…and they’re only teenagers.” 

A lack of respect for one’s own body throughout high school leads to even more complicated issues further on in life.  Most college females fear the notorious Freshman Fifteen, and they continue to battle the pressures of weight and size as they get older.  They linger between the realization of real freedom and the unconscious internalization of the “thin ideal,” rooted in the painful struggle for a perfect body throughout their teenage and high school years.  

In today’s society, it’s no wonder girls are caring more and more about their physical appearance.  How do we teach them?  How do we make them see that a beautiful female is more than a Britney-Spears-body and an endless diet?  Strong female roles are the key to self-confidence, and breaking down the barriers of media-driven body ideals will keep teen girls from falling into the tragic struggle of perceived exterior inadequacy and ugliness.

Read other articles by Michele

Michele is a communications major at Mt. St. Marys, and
servers as Communications Director