This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.
By Danah Atassi, Hinsdale Central and Kiley Roache, Nazareth Academy
Whenever Summer Evans, a sophomore at Joliet West, is feeling down, two things help her feel stronger: her family and One Direction.
Evans said that every now and then, she will see teens tweeting about how the song “Little Things” has improved their self-esteem. The song includes lyrics like “You’ve never loved / Your stomach or your thighs / The dimples in your back at the bottom of your spine / But I’ll love them endlessly.”
“I think that they are saying (in the song) that no matter what anyone says about you, you are perfect just the way you are, and you shouldn’t let other people change what you think of you,” Evans said.
But most influences girls encounter from friends, magazines and social media are not as kind to their bodies. In fact, girls are more likely during their day to encounter body bashing.
While teen girls have always been able to partake in body bashing when they get together, social media has enabled the hate to stream 24-7. From Tumblr, where the hashtag “#don’teat” is popular, to the Instagram fad of posting pictures of thigh gaps (a search for “thigh gap” produces nearly 2 million results on Google), to a popular meme that compares side-by-side pictures of women’s bodies with the caption “When did this become hotter than this,” body bashing is evident all over the Web.
Northwestern professor Renee Engeln, who specializes in body image, said that she absolutely thinks body bashing has become more common. “Most people find their grandmothers didn’t do it, their mothers do it some, but their daughters do it the most,” Engeln said.
This can have dangerous consequences. “We know that peer teasing and criticism about appearance is one of the many risk factors that can lead to eating disorders, and these negative comments seem to be made much more easily on social media than face-to-face interactions,” said professor Tracey Wade of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, co-author of a recent study on body dissatisfaction and a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders.
Girls get bullied everywhere, not just online.
Child development and body image specialist Dr. Robyn Silverman said the pressure to be thin and beautiful in order to have value is “reinforced in the media, and then it’s reinforced by those closest to those girls … whether it’s in their family or among their friends, or even at school by teachers.” Silverman also wrote the book “Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It.”
All of these influences can make girls think differently about their bodies.
“If I were in a vacuum, I wouldn’t be criticizing myself like, ‘Oh, your nose is too big and, ugh, what if my thighs were smaller,’ ” said Zena Ibrahim, a senior at Hinsdale Central.
The experts acknowledge that some people may argue that body criticism isn’t completely harmful—it may help prevent obesity and diseases such as diabetes. However, Engeln pointed out that while there’s danger in health problems such as obesity, “Hating your body and feeling ugly, those don’t actually help you take care of your body. … If feeling bad about your body was a good way to lose weight, no woman would be overweight.”
Instead, she said, “Focusing on health, focusing on positive goals seems to be the way to do it.”
But even for athletes, those who many look up to as having the healthiest bodies, those positive goals still open the door for body bashing.
Hinsdale Central senior Madeline Capozzoli said that as a gymnast there’s an increased pressure to conform to a certain body type. “I see it all the time at meets,” she said. “Girls will comment on each other’s body types no matter what: ‘That girl is way too skinny. Probably anorexic.’ Or, ‘How does she expect to get around the bar with all of ‘that.’ ”
Such comments sound harsh, but Wade said that even seemingly harmless conversations about bodies can have adverse effects. “Even when done in a non-critical way, girls who are already body dissatisfied get even moreso after conversations about weight and comparisons about weight and body shape.”
Wade said that people, and advertisers in particular, can help change body image for the better by openly accepting more body types. “If there was greater public celebration of body diversity and realistic depiction of the human body in advertising, then this could help women decrease their own self-criticism.”
Evans, the Joliet West student, says that she has recently seen an improvement in attitudes about body image on social media.
“On Twitter now, it’s more positive than it used to be,” she said. When people tweet negative comments about their bodies, “I’ll see other people comment and tweet and tell them they shouldn’t think that, that they should think better of themselves.”
—The Mash and Brianna Ortega of Resurrection contributed.