Snapping selfies may seem like an innocuous activity of today’s youth, but the anxiety that comes with choosing the perfect image could have harmful effects. A recent study out of the University of Arizona found that teen girls who fret over which photo of themselves to post on social media or who heavily use photo editing apps are more likely to self-objectify than those who don’t.
Interestingly, it isn’t the act of taking selfies that brings excessive anxiety about appearance but, rather, the overanalysis of those selfies that can lead teens to be more critical of their appearance.
Published in the Journal of Children and Media, the study examined the selfie-editing processes of 278 girls, ages 14 to 17. Apps like Facetune can brighten teeth, change the sizes of lips and noses and remove blemishes in just a few taps. Researchers found that the time and effort put into such apps by teen girls correlates with feeling more shameful and anxious about their appearance.
To help parents of teens spot the signs of appearance anxiety and employ ways to help improve their teen’s body image, we sat down with Rachel Coleman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Mission Viejo. She has more than 12 years of experience treating eating disorders and is the co-host of “Mom Genes The Podcast.” (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
OC Family: Why do you think so many teens are fretting over selfies and editing their images?
Coleman: Our culture rewards attractiveness, glamorizes sexuality and celebrates weight loss. This messaging trickles down to the high schools and allows the students with more physical attractiveness (usually in thinner, fitter bodies wearing more revealing clothing) to become more powerful in the high school hierarchy. Editing photos, taking multiple shots, posting the “perfect” photo is a teen’s way of attempting to gain control of their social standing and increase power over their social status.
OCF: What are some general signs that a teen is struggling with body image and shame issues?
Coleman: Teens may engage in obsessive thinking, as evidenced by increased time taking photos, editing and then deleting them in frustration, disgust over appearance in photos, refusal to take family photos at the holidays and anxiety over their outfits at school dances or social gatherings that lead to indecision on which outfit to wear or refusal to attend the event.
OCF: What are some other body shame behaviors parents should look out for?
Coleman: Mirror “body checking” — looking at their body from multiple angles, pinching and scrutinizing body parts, hiding their body in looser fitting clothing, refusing to wear bathing suits, isolating in their room, attempting elimination diets in the name of weight loss, increasing exercise that is a compensation for food eaten, or eating larger amounts of food than usual while isolating are all behaviors to look out for.
OCF: What are some of the self-image and body shaming risks associated with social media use?
Coleman: Inappropriate emphasis placed on the teen’s appearance and body size is the key risk in social media use. Visual tools such as editing software or filters only add to this risk because it is giving the teen the subtle message that their organic, photographed self is not good enough.
OCF: How can parents open and continue a conversation about body image with their teens?
Coleman: Supporting your teen through this phase can include the balanced guidance of listening and coaching, having a safe space for the teen to talk by decreasing your judgment and withholding your lectures, and sharing your own struggles from the past or present to find a sense of self. A teen will struggle to find body peace if the parent has not found the same body peace.
OCF: What are some effective strategies parents and teens can employ to help improve their body image?
Coleman: Helping teens develop value and belief systems and visualize their future (unless it induces anxiety) can help with improving body image. Some concrete ways families can create safe spaces include eating meals together as much as possible, covering closet mirrors with posters of adventure places or positive quotes for daily reminders or reduction of body obsession and setting a vibe of body positivity in the home.
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