The Teen Body Image Epidemic
June 4, 2022
The waiting area of my pediatrician’s office, consistently the same brisk temperature. I watched the TV showing Finding Nemo, anxiously waiting for them to yell my name. A short woman with clipboard in hand yelled my name from the other side of the office. I got up and followed her to a scale at the end of a hallway littered with stickers reading “smile!” and was told to take off my shoes and step on. The disgust from being barefoot on the cold and thoroughly used scale was quickly wrenched by my stomach sinking as it flashed 200 in bright red along the small scale screen. I was 10 years old.
Goalie. Arguably the best position for an overweight asthmatic kid. This being the case I took to it pretty quickly. The one position that allowed me to sit and become a spectator of my own as I watched the mad dash for the ball happening some 90 yards away. I amassed a collection of daisies and grass as I sat and waited for the return of the ball. I remember thinking to myself from my netted spectators box, I’m the only fat kid on the team.
These were not individual experiences unfortunately. Whether it’s an experience involving not feeling good enough for a sport or a doctor telling you to lose/gain weight. Body image issues have major ties to anxiety and depression especially among youth. So why is it so prevalent in our schools?
When I was younger, social media felt like a rite of passage. I looked around and saw all of the teenagers around me were using it: my sister, her friends, neighbors, etc. When it was finally my turn to get it, however, I was thoroughly disappointed. I am too old now to remember what I was expecting, but I know I didn’t care to scroll through pictures of half-naked men and women sitting on the beach. This is just what the algorithm stuffed into the faces of innocent adolescents. At some point in time, however, I stopped questioning why Zuckerberg thought this was the content for me and began wondering why don’t I look like that? Like so many children, I was tricked by the clever angles, the filters, the obvious photoshop. It was a completely unattainable body type, and yet that was all I ever saw. It was all I ever wanted to look like. This comparison is horribly common in children.
“Social media has made me feel inadequate a lot,” Rayan Zouai said. Although Zouai, a senior at San Rafael High School, feels pretty neutral about his body, he has attributed social media to some of the negative feelings about his body. They push a fake and/or completely unrealistic body image onto unsuspecting children, who often cannot yet point out the obvious falsities of the influencer industry.
Emily Spence has had a similar experience with social media. “I feel like because I’m not on Instagram that much my body image has gotten significantly better than when I was on Instagram a lot,” she said. She saw her friends posting pictures in bikinis, and could only think, “I could never do that… they’re just so skinny, they have a flat stomach.” A multitude of studies have shown a link between social media and body image issues, such as Jasmine Fardouly and Lenny Vartanian’s study, showing that “social media use is consistently and positively associated with negative body image” among young men and women. Barbara Jiotsa’s study came to a similar conclusion, in which the more people “compared themselves to the images, the more they increased their body dissatisfaction and their drive for thinness.” Or Alyssa Saiphoo and Zahra Vahedi, who conducted a study in which a “positive relationship between social media use and body image disturbance was found.”
In a survey of San Rafael High School students, 63 respondents (or 58.9%) said that they receive negative messages about their appearance and body shape on social media, the highest of any category by over 25 votes. Senior Chloe Strolia, one of these respondents, described her experience scrolling through the Instagram account for her incoming college class. Dozens of women in bikinis popped up, vying for people to click on their picture in order to get to know them on more than a surface-level. “We’ve placed so much value on people’s bodies rather than what they write in their bio,” she said. She also brought up Kim Kardashian, a social media influencer who recently claimed to have lost sixteen pounds in three weeks in order to fit into a dress. As an influencer with millions and millions of fans, Chloe couldn’t help but to think, “what is that example? That’s terrible, that’s not healthy.”
However, sophomore Marcos Vega believes that social media has actually improved his body image. “I turned the negative of social media into a positive,” he said. When he sees influencers with the “ideal” body type, he thinks that he “can get there one day.” He uses their pictures as motivation for exercising and cultivating healthy habits. Senior Ravi Prevost shares this same idea, stating that “you should be happy about your body but you should also seek to improve it.” Just recently, Prevost lost some weight after his doctor said that he should consider it, and he said it made him feel more energetic than before.
Health professionals have the ability to shape young minds and their views on what a healthy body looks like. It is up to them to determine whether or not teenagers need to make a change in order to be healthy, and their words often have a profound impact on the malleable child brain. Dieticians are just one profession who work with young people, working to establish healthy relationships with food for their clients.
Susannah Wallenstrom, a San Rafael-based dietician, is one of these professionals. She told me that her main goal as a dietician is to “promote health and to help kids of all ages have a good relationship with food.” She doesn’t discuss weight at all in her line of work, but rather creates balanced diets in order to encourage health rather than getting smaller. She always does “more adding then subtracting” when it comes to creating a meal plan for her clients, as eating more healthy foods keeps people from restricting and eating too little for their body type.
However, it can be difficult for students to reach out for help. Ms. Ouneklap, a Wellness yCounselor working in San Rafael’s Wellness Center, understands this issue well. She told me that it is often easier for female students and LGBTQ students to open up. This is due to the stigma placed unduly upon young men that they should not experience body dysmorphia or body image issues.
“With male-identifying students, I tend to validate more and give more psychoeducation surrounding their body dissatisfaction talk due to most popular culture and research focusing on female-identifying people,” Ms. Ouneklap said. And she can only do so much for each student. “It’s not really feasible for me to completely walk through a healing process with someone who has disordered eating because we do short-term school-based therapy,” she admitted to me. Of course, she can connect struggling students to outside sources, but the restrictions of her school-based job keep her from being able to work on long-term solutions with each student.
This is where Health class comes in. The freshman year class is one of few places on campus in which students can learn about positive self-image. Ms. Healy, Mr. Butler, and Mr. Springhorn all spoke highly of the Health curriculum. Just like Ms. Ouneklap, Mr. Springhorn talks “a lot about how a student can access support on any topic that they may need help with or do not understand” throughout the course of the semester. He believes that talking about body image, a stigmatized topic for many teenagers, gives students “real ways to overcome and access support if needed.” Zouai, who conducted a report on the Health curriculum for his Link Crew class, believes that the Health class is “not perfect or ideal and there are flaws, but… it’s being updated to be more accurate.” He added that when he was a freshman, his class flipped through textbooks from the 1990’s that were filled with outdated or incorrect information. For example, Strolia was “disappointed” with the Health curriculum’s coverage of social media and body image in general. “Any education that we’ve had on it has been like it’s so severe that you’re starving yourself…or you’re totally comfortable and fine with your body,” she said. This lack of nuanced teaching has made it hard for some students to receive the help that is supposed to be delivered by the Health class.
Mr. Butler, an ex-Health teacher, believes that “the strongest solution is to teach our students how to see through the messaging for what it is and that it’s rarely a real, true representation of the societal norm.” Ms. Healy echoed a similar sentiment, adding that “self-esteem building activities like participation in sports and recreation” can also help students cultivate a positive self-image.
Sports are a huge part of many San Rafael students’ lives. With fourteen sports that students can participate in, they have become a huge part of our school’s culture. Zouai is just a small part of that culture. As an ex-wrestler, he grappled and fought with other Marin students for two seasons. But in a sport notorious for extreme weight loss strategies and disordered eating, how did it end up affecting his body image? At the beginning of his freshman season, Zouai traveled to San Marin in order to measure his body fat percentage. “If your percentage is too low for your sex, you can’t participate,” he said, as it could potentially be dangerous for those on the lower end of the spectrum. The entire team stood around and watched, as anxiety crept in. “It was stressful, especially for the girls on the team.” They stood in silence, worried about silent judgment from one another, as the future of their season was on the line. But thankfully for Zouai, he “passed” the test and his season truly began.
The start of the season was rough. When asked about how wrestling impacted his body image, Zouai said, “Sometimes I felt worse because… it was still hard for me to compare with the bigger guys on the team.” Many athletes, including me, can attest to how directly related sports performance and confidence are. When I joined the soccer team as a freshman, I was intimidated by the juniors and seniors who seemed like full-grown men, as beards and mustaches abounded. Inferiority bred in even the best underclassmen as kids who were bigger, stronger, and faster than us beat us into a pulp. However, Zouai and I, and most other athletes, overcame it. Zouai describes the effect that wrestling had on his body image as mostly positive, as he said it “also made me feel better because it made me feel confident…[that] I could build my strength.”
Cole Boulter had a different story to tell. As a freshman, he attended Marin Catholic and joined the football team. As one of the top football teams in the area, Marin Catholic worked to produce top-notch athletes, some of whom have even made it to the NFL. Boulter was not in it to make it to the top, however. But he did have to compete against people who did. He described the feeling of being matched up with “literal tanks,” underclassmen who would put grown men to shame. Playing against these people who made football their livelihood made Boulter feel “less valuable in the sport,” ultimately leading to his untimely retirement after his freshman season. During our interview, he began by stating that he could have improved if he had put in the work, but he had other priorities. Despite his stoic nature, he eventually admitted that his experience on the football team had “probably made [him] feel worse” about his body.
While the football field might seem intimidating to some, the school hallways are where a large amount of people’s body image is affected. In a school with 1300 students, something as simple as a five minute passing period is filled with people of all shapes and sizes. This concept can be scary when you consider everyones constantly making their own judgements in their head. Which for someone who’s self conscious, that may be all they think about. Chloe Strolia spoke to these “quick judgements” how “the negative stuff is not spoken… the way that someone looks at you”.
Vega talked about his experience with the seniors during his time on the track team. He mentioned how they acted as mentors to him and made him feel confident about his body. In a 2011 study conducted by Dawn M Gondoli, 88 teenage girls were analyzed between 6th to 8th grade. Gondoli showed that almost all body dissatisfaction was the product of peer pressure for thinness. Strolia spoke about the mindset and how “it’s easy for people to say ‘just brush that off.’” She talked about how it’s a never ending struggle even for people who might fit the typical beauty standard. “You’re just living in this constant state of feeling like you’re never good enough, and you’re never gonna get there.” And that is one of the most toxic parts about poor body image, the thought that your body isn’t “good enough” as it causes a loop that may be difficult for some to get out of.
Body image is a complex issue, whose factors are different for each individual. While one person may find social media to be a positive experience, in which they are able to promote and practice a positive mindset, another person may find it detrimental to their mental health.
At the end of the day, however, it is important to understand that many students at San Rafael High School struggle with their body image. To varying degrees, hundreds of students have to deal with negative messaging from all around them, and the school can only do so much. With so much media influence surrounding body image and how widespread it is, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed at a young age.
I never liked shopping for clothes as a kid. Not for the constant in-out of the changing room, but because everytime my mom would ask my size I would respond, “I don’t know.” That everytime she would hold something, give me something to try on, I would say, “That’s too big.” And that it very rarely was in fact, “too big.” So with a fear of shopping and facing my size, I held a very limited wardrobe. With this came the knowledge of a skill utilized by many overweight people: “the shirt pull.” It’s a skill I still utilize to this day.