Body image: the pressure of 'normal'

While feeling body-conscious as a teenager may not be new, the issue is arguably now magnified thanks to always-on technology. Community Practitioner looks at the impact.

Body image among young people is a subject that has been increasingly hitting the headlines of late. Youngsters are becoming so anxious about the way they look that it is having a significant impact on their lives. They are worrying about whether they are ‘normal’, which has become reflected – shockingly – in the rise in cosmetic operations including genital surgery in girls under 18, as reported by the BBC in July.

Whether it’s through powerful outlets such as print, TV, film or digital devices, young people are repeatedly presented with images of what is deemed to be the ‘ideal’ body. The pressures to conform are reinforced by their peers and through social media in the ever-connected world they now inhabit.

Research by the Be Real campaign for body confidence from YMCA and Dove (2017) revealed that 79% of 11- to 16-year-olds said how they look is important to them (see ‘The real figures’ for more findings). 


What’s going on?

A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement (2017) showed that social media sites including Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter are having a harmful and negative impact on young people (aged 14 to 24 in the survey). It revealed that the platforms could lead to body image worries and could worsen bullying, sleep problems, and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.

‘One argument is that social media results in young people constantly comparing themselves and their lives with others who post perfect “selfies” and images online,’ says Dr Rebecca Horner, an educational psychologist who works in schools with staff and children to help combat the issue. 

‘However, there has been the ability to compare with others through newspapers, television and magazines for a long time prior to social media. So there isn’t a sure-fire way to measure whether there has been an alarming rise in young people with body anxiety issues. 

‘It’s very possible they just feel more able to ask for help when they need it, or are seeking diagnosis of anxiety-related issues more frequently.’


The daily impact

How exactly does an ongoing struggle with body image and body anxiety impact a young person’s life? ‘Learning is a process that includes taking risks,’ explains Dr Horner.

‘If a young person has been comparing themselves with others, physically or in terms of academic achievements, they may feel less confident in themselves. This lack of confidence can have a knock-on effect on their, often subconscious, willingness to take risks.’ 

Sadly, this can affect several areas of their life. ‘It’s a logical method of protecting oneself from the risk of negative feedback from others, but one that can result in them avoiding, often without deliberate intent, potentially risky situations such as answering a question in front of the class,’ continues Dr Horner.

‘I have met young people so anxious about what others think of them and how they will be judged that they physically cannot put pen to paper, or even leave home to go to school. In addition, high levels of anxiety can sometimes impact on a young person’s ability to develop and sustain positive relationships. This can often result in them feeling socially isolated in school, and can cause other difficulties such as low mood, lack of motivation and difficulties with relationships at home.’


What’s the answer?

‘I am very interested in what we can do as a society to change the way the human body and personal achievements are represented in the media,’ says Dr Horner. ‘And I applaud the drive for more diversity and less gender bias in television programming and advertising. 

‘I believe that this should be supported by a good education, from a young age, that celebrates diversity and every body and every mind as beautiful and special.

A good education is, of course, underpinned by good role models at home, in school and, ironically, in the media.’

In a world where so much value can be placed on appearance, Dr Horner has these reassuring words: ‘Disability, weight, age, gender, clothes, style, haircut, to name but a few, should, in my view, be taught, modelled and understood by society as secondary to a person’s attributes, their character, their strengths and their skills.’

‘These issues have always been here for young people but they’re now coming more to light,’ says Liam Preston, who is spearheading the Be Real campaign. He belives peers can have a big influence. 

‘I do think celebrities have an impact on young people wanting to emulate their icons but people have always wanted to do that,’ continues Liam. ‘The pressures are more from each other and from friends. We know that it’s the friendship group that has an impact.’

‘Our campaign is around achieving body confidence for everybody. We are working with fashion, music and advertising industries to ensure that they reflect the diverse society that we have in the UK. It’s also about having healthy and age-appropriate models in advertising campaigns.’

So what’s most important in making a change? ‘The key to doing any work in this area is starting young. That’s when issues start to develop. We do a lot of work in secondary schools, but ideally it’s about going to primary schools to give children the building blocks, to say that it’s not about image, but it’s what’s inside that counts.

The key age is 12 or 13. We need to get in there early enough so that we can engage with them before they reach that critical age.’

More than 600 primary and secondary schools have signed up to the Be Real campaign, which involves pupils opening up about their body image issues. On the back of their research, a toolkit for schools has been developed to help teachers educate pupils about body confidence. Let’s hope it kickstarts a change. 

Spreading the right messages from a young age and having healthy role models seem to be the way forward. Let’s help young people realise there is no ‘normal’. That message can hopefully help future generations to be body and life confident.


BBC. (2017) Vagina surgery ‘sought by girls as young as nine’. See bbc.co.uk/news/health-40410459 (accessed 25 July 2017).

Dove, YMCA. (2017) Somebody like me. See: berealcampaign.co.uk/somebody-like-me (accessed 25 July 2017).

Royal Society for Public Health, Young Health Movement. (2017) #Statusofmind. See: rsph.org.uk/our-work/policy/social-media-and-young-people-s-mental-health-and-wellbeing.html (accessed 25 July 2017).

Image credit: iStock


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