For the parents of teenagers, these are anxious times. Across the US and UK, it appears that mental health issues are on the rise in young people1, with various modern pressures weighing heavily on a generation that is too young to cope. One significant factor is problems with body image, something which profoundly interacts with the self-esteem, happiness and ultimately mental health of young people.
Body Image and Teenagers
Body image is our mental representation of ourselves. It can be quite far removed from the objective reality of our bodies, and it is also a key part of our wider self-esteem.
The way we perceive our body has much to do with how we perceive our character and abilities — for example, a boy who thinks of himself as “puny” may associate this with being unmasculine, while a girl who describes herself as a “plain Jane” may extrapolate that she is dull and unexceptional.
Some body image struggles are normal (especially in our teenage years), but we appear to have moved far from occasional self doubt to a near-constant state of deeply felt, life-disrupting body dissatisfaction. Problems with body image can cause low self-esteem, social withdrawal, low expectations of life, self neglect and social anxiety.
Surveys asking young people how they view themselves make for worrying reading. Some key statistics in the US include2:
- 53% of American 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies — a figure that rises to 78% by the time they are 17.
- By late elementary school, 50% of girls are dissatisfied with weight and shape and have developed pervasive negative body esteem.
- 95% of people who suffer from eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
- 50% of teenage girls and 33% of teenage boys will engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors.3
- 98% of girls feel there is an immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way.4
These statistics mainly pertain to girls, but young men are by no means immune to societal pressure regarding their appearance. While previous generations of mothers and fathers worried about inappropriate pop music and daring outfits for their teens, the tangible crisis in mental health means that today’s parents are far more concerned about self-loathing than youthful self-indulgence.5
Yoga and Body Image
In order to truly address the prevalence of body dissatisfaction in older children and teenagers, it’s likely that we will need broad cultural and societal changes targeting social media, marketing and restrictive beauty standards. But what options does that leave parents who want to support their teen’s body confidence in the here and now?
Of course, parents will think and often tell their children that they are wonderful, and they can offer a reasoned voice to counteract the irrational and damaging messages teens can absorb from elsewhere. This is an extremely helpful scaffolding from which a teenager can base their self-esteem, but one practical habit parents can introduce into their teen’s lives is yoga.
Whether it’s encouraging schools to introduce the practice in their PE programs, taking their child along to lessons or even following a few online tutorials, studies are increasingly suggesting that yoga can help people develop a healthier body image.
Yoga, in its essence, is a non-competitive and non-judgmental practice. In a recent study, young adults reported improved body image through a sense of accomplishment, gratitude for one’s body, witnessing a variety of different body types taking part in yoga and perceived physical changes.6 In doing yoga, teens can redress their focus from what their body looks like to how their body moves, feels and what it is capable of.
The greater flexibility and strength that can be achieved through yoga can also boost the confidence of teens, especially as it reframes physical change outside of the parameters of losing weight (usually for aesthetic reasons) or competitive sport. But it is perhaps the element of mindfulness which is most important, giving teenagers the opportunity to observe themselves non-judgmentally, and become more aware of their negative self-talk.
It is important to note that the study cited above does point out that — while generally improving body image — practicing yoga can lead people to negatively compare themselves to others doing yoga, but that this can be counteracted when yoga classes are inclusive and diverse. If parents instill an idea of yoga as something personal and empowering, rather than a means to achieve a “yoga body”, then they can do much to bring the best out of the habit.
Perhaps the most powerful influence that yoga can have on body image is in helping teenagers to understand that their body is something to love and nurture, not punish for not living up to a arbitrary societal standard. As a practice that aims to unify body, mind and spirit, it can have profound benefits for mental and emotional health — two things that, for teenagers in today’s world, we have to take extra steps to protect.
- O’Hara, M. (2018, July 31). Young people’s mental health is a ‘worsening crisis’. Action is needed. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/31/young-people-mental-health-crisis-uk-us-suicide
- Gallivan, H.R. (2014). Teens, social media, and body image [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.macmh.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/18_Gallivan_Teens-social-media-body-image-presentation-H-Gallivan-Spring-2014.pdf
- James, J. (2017, Aug 8). Eating disorder statistics: 2017. Retrieved from https://adolescentgrowth.com/eating-disorder-statistics/
- Statistics on girls & women’s self esteem, pressures & leadership. (2013). Retrieved from https://heartofleadership.org/statistics/
- Snow, K. & McFadden, C. (2017, Dec 10) Generation at risk: America’s youngest facing mental health crisis. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/kids-health/generation-risk-america-s-youngest-facing-mental-health-crisis-n827836
- Neumark-Sztainer, D., Watts, A.W., & Rydell, S. (2018) Yoga and body image: How do young adults practicing yoga describe its impact on their body image? Body Image, Dec (27), 156-168. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.09.001