Teen body image refers to how adolescents perceive their bodies. It includes their feelings about their body and how they take care of it, and is an essential part of adolescent development.
Teen body image is also closely linked to self-esteem, largely because society and the media place so much importance on the way we look. This focus on appearance contributes to teenage body image issues and teen eating disorders.
“An important challenge faced by teenagers is internal versus external locus of control,” says Linda Swanepoel, therapeutic manager and occupational therapist at Akeso Montrose Manor.
“This means the extent to which a person believes they have the power over events in their lives. A person with an internal locus of control believes that they can influence events and their outcomes, while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything and seeks external approval and validation to feel good about themselves.”
A healthy, confident child will learn to have an internal locus of control, but if the child is raised in a household where there is instability and chaos, and at times a lack of safety, they may learn an external locus of control.
“When a child is too young to have the resources to cope they soon learn that ‘if I can help mommy and daddy to feel better, I will feel better’. As they grow older, face more stress and carry the weight of expectations, their focus turns to pleasing or impressing others, rather than developing a sense of self.”
Teenagers experience increased school and societal pressures at a time when significant changes are taking place in their bodies. Thus, if they have not learned to believe in their own resources to cope with life, their focus will be on what other people expect or think of them, rather than on how they feel about themselves.
“Eventually, everything they choose to do in their lives is dependent on assumptions they make about how they will be perceived by others,” Swanepoel adds. “Body image plays an important role in this too.”
Why body positivity is important
“Teenagers tend to see the concept of a ’middle path’ as average and boring, and Western society reinforces this all or nothing thinking. This leads to beliefs like you must have the perfect body, you must go to university and you must make money,” Swanepoel says.
How can you help?
Children need to feel safe so that they can focus on self rather than feeling responsible for others. Swanepoel points out that it’s important to avoid the ‘drama triangle’ – perpetrator, victim and rescuer.
“This is when one parent complains to the child about the other parent. The child will feel the need to take sides and rescue, immediately starting the external locus of control cycle. This leads to low self-esteem, which can lead to body image problems, such as restricting (trying to be perfect) or binging (as a result of avoidance).
"Parents need to work as a team and find a parenting style that suits them both. This helps the child feel safe and avoids manipulation which the child will soon become very good at.”