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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Not a pretty picture – young people and body image

A report on the state of people’s body image in the UK based on a survey this July with 7,900 children, young people and adults was published on 22 September by the Women and Equalities Committee. Changing The Perfect Picture: An Inquiry Into Body Image looks at what influences people’s feelings about their appearance and how to improve people’s body image on a national level.

Let’s zero in on what the report discovered about children and young people…

1) Most people feel negative about their body image most of the time

  • 66% of children (and 61% of adults) feel negative or very negative about their body image most of the time

  • 65% of under-18s (and 45% of adults) think there is an “ideal” body type

Children aged 11+ say they or their friends struggle with low self-esteem, mental-health problems and eating disorders. Young people feel insecure about their body shape, weight, muscle size, skin and hair, among other things. Influences on their insecurities include social media and celebrities, friends and family, being weighed at school and edited pictures.

“It’s not only women and it’s men too. [Body image] affects everything and it sucks” – boy aged 15-17

“I am a Brownie leader and am concerned about young girls who are influenced negatively by their parents. Aged 7-10 they should be playing and exploring, not dyeing hair and worrying about body weight and how they look” – woman aged 55+

“Everybody in today’s society has that ‘ideal’ body image in their head that they want. But that shouldn’t be the case. Recently I have seen more things about body positivity but the negative still overpowers it” – girl aged 11-14

2) Lockdown made people feel worse about their body image

“Lockdown has made my body image worse due to being able to spend my time on social media and just having time to sit in front of the mirror for ages” – girl aged 15-17

3) Under-18s want to learn about body image in school

  • 70% of under-18s hadn’t learned about positive body image at school

  • 78% would like to learn more about positive body image at school

Teenagers report that comments on their appearance and appearance-based bullying by friends and family become more common during secondary school.

“Children especially in secondary school should be taught about body image and how to appreciate your body despite your appearance because it has affected me and my friends very negatively, especially with social media always telling us we need perfect teeth, clear skin, curvy body, toned stomach etc. It makes teenagers not feel good enough” – girl aged 15-17

“People should be taught that all bodies are beautiful, health does not always correlate with size and that there is so much more to life and our worth than losing weight or being the most attractive person possible… Self-acceptance and appreciation needs to be promoted in institutions such as primary and secondary schools and hopefully one day people of all ages everywhere will realise they are so much more than their bodies” – girl aged 15-17

“[It] should be taught from a VERY young age about caring about personality more than looks. Like when you are learning how to count, so it is drilled into you from a young age” – boy aged 15-17

Parents’ and teachers’ concerns for young people include the impact of weight-loss organisations’ advertising, the sexualisation of young people and the rise in eating disorders.

“Body image is HUGE and greatly impacts both men and women. I see this first hand in schools. Children as young as in year 4 are affected, and it needs to be at the forefront for businesses and social media” – woman aged 25-34

“I teach PE in a secondary school. Mainly to girls. The effect social media has on their body image is devastating and extremely dangerous. They want to grow up far too quickly, and become oversexualised from a very early age. It’s hard to witness” – woman aged 35-44

4) People don’t feel reflected in the images they see in media and advertising

“The media in particular portrays the ideal that we all must be slim and skinny with perfect muscular bodies or stick thin like models which is totally unrealistic and I personally struggle with my self-confidence so when I see adverts or images online of people promoting a certain body ideal I hate it. It makes me feel awful and I then begin to hate my body even more than I previously did before, no matter what anyone says” – girl aged 15-17

“It’s not the actual main media which we are forced to see on a daily [basis] that ever really does any help, eg the adverts on YouTube, newspapers, TV. It’s like we have to pretty much 90% of the time go out and follow those accounts which are body positive. We have to do the looking for ourselves and that can be hard when you don’t even know they’re out there or where to find them” – girl aged 11-14

5) Images on social media have a big influence on young people

Social media has the biggest influence on young people’s body image – and most spend over 2 hours a day on social media:

  • 95% use Instagram

  • 90% use YouTube

  • 75% use Snapchat

  • 66% use TikTok

76% of under-18s have seen adverts for weight-loss organisations while using social media.

“I think it needs to be taught from a young age that the way you look is perfect. Ads including anything to do with appearance should not be shown to anyone under the age of 18 on social media. Young children are very impressionable” – girl aged 15-17

6) People want change

“I have so many friends who have had/have eating disorders and friends that have been affected by having negative mental health… We need more funding for mental health. We need better support for young people. We need to improve the way people see themselves. Fat is not bad and diet culture is toxic. We need help” – girl aged 15-17

“I would say that [body image] is among the most important social issues of my generation” – boy aged 15-17

“We will use the information we have learned to help us decide what changes we can recommend to the government to improve the nation’s body image,” declares the Women and Equalities Committee.

Unfortunately they have their work cut out for them.

Read the survey results here and the jazzier “shorthand stories” version here

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