Only a minority of the teens surveyed met the diagnostic for anorexia and bulimia. (Instagram)
Despite efforts by mainstream media to promote positive body images, a new study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies has found that many Australian teens still have a negative relationship with their weight.
- Half of the girls and one-fifth of boys surveyed said they were afraid of gaining weight
- One in four girls, and one in 10 boys consciously restricted their food intake
- Of the 14- and 15-year-olds who dieted, about two-thirds of girls and half the boys were within the normal weight range
The study of 14- and 15-year-olds found that weight concerns are more common for girls.
The institute, which describes itself as the Australian Government’s key research body in the area of family wellbeing, found that some of the teenagers surveyed had been trying to lose weight since childhood.
Another troubling finding was that the adolescents who were dieting reported more emotional problems, lower levels of school adjustment and more social difficulties than those who were not.
Thigh gaps and thinspo
Emi Habgood, 16, knows how much pressure teenagers can feel to look a certain way.
“You’re online and you see someone who looks really good and you’re jealous,” she said.
“I mean, it could even be your best friend that you compare yourself to, or a celebrity that just pops up.”
Of the teenagers surveyed, half of the girls, and one in five of the boys said they had been afraid of gaining weight in the past four weeks.
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Dr Galina Daraganova is a psychologist and the executive manager of longitudinal and life course studies at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
She said that although only a small minority of the teens surveyed met the diagnostic for anorexia and bulimia — only 3 per cent of girls and 1 per cent of boys — many of them were exercising at “extensive and obsessive” levels.
“Among girls, more than half were afraid of gaining weight and 43 per cent of girls actually undertook some actions to try to control their weight in the past month,” she said.
And she said about 20 per cent of boys had experienced similar problems.
According to the study, it was much more common for girls to say that they felt “somewhat” overweight — at 33 per cent compared to 19 per cent — and boys were more likely to be concerned that they were underweight.
Emi’s friend Thea Jones has also noticed how the dieting culture can influence teenagers’ attitudes about food and weight.
She said that even when she was very little, she had been aware of kids worrying about weight.
“Their mum goes on a diet and then they just get into this weird habit of dieting — not eating certain things,” she said.
She does not think it is healthy for the diet culture to influence young children and teenagers in that way.
Some of the teenagers in the study who said they had been trying to lose weight through dieting had started as young as 10 years of age.
Dr Daraganova is worried about some of the attitudes towards weight reflected in the study.
“What was really, really upsetting was that 25 per cent of girls said that weight very important for them, about how they feel about themselves as a person,” Ms Daraganova said.
“They’re looking for thin ideals.”
Dr Daraganova said she would rather see teenagers aspire to be healthy.
“We really need to change the message,” she said.
Adolescents who were dieting reported more emotional problems, lower levels of school adjustment and more social difficulties than those who were not. (ABC News)
Although staying healthy and maintaining a healthy weight is important, she said, the message should be about exercising at a healthy level and choosing different or healthy options, rather than focusing on the restrictive dieting.
Some teens are actively resisting the pressure from the relentless images of perfection in modern life.
Emi Habgood said girls in particular put a lot of pressure on themselves, but she and her friends make an effort to support each other and keep a healthy attitude towards body image.
“We don’t really compare ourselves to celebrities,” she said.
“If I said to a friend, ‘I feel really fat’, they’ll be like, ‘No, I think you’re beautiful.'”