News Comment

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Claire O’Mahony: Has it ever been more difficult to be a teenager?

Published 15/10/2012 | 15:12

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IT'S NOT surprising that an extensive study has found that Irish girls aged 15 have the worst body image and that two out of three say they feel pressurised to look good for other people.

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Arguably, what is surprising about it is that one out of three don’t feel pressurised in this way.

Has it ever been more difficult to be a teenager in relation to body image, and specifically weight?

In the How We See It survey, more than 2,000 young people were questioned and more than half said that comparing themselves with others negatively affects their body image – and that body image interferes with participation in activities like swimming, dating and putting up photographs on Facebook.

This issue of how to address these findings is a hard one to navigate sensitively.

We want our teens to be healthy but we do not want this to become a dangerous obsession, nor do we want the focus to centre on their appearance, as opposed to their school work or personal development.

While the last thing anybody would want to do is to lay the foundations of an eating disorder or addiction to exercise, according to the Irish Heart Foundation, one in five teens can be categorised as clinically obese.

Of course, underpinning all of this is the celebrity culture where a person’s weight – especially a woman’s - is fair game for commentary and any concept of what a ‘normal’ weight might be is completely skewed.

The Hunger Games actress, Jennifer Lawrence, is a case in point. A slim girl, she is regularly described as ‘curvy’ in celebrity gossip magazines, because she does not fit the usual Hollywood mould of practical emaciation.

If the gorgeous and healthy looking Lawrence is considered a little on the chunky side, how is your average 15-year-old Irish girl meant to feel?

Media and celebrities were cited as two of the reasons Irish teens have a poor body image, but perhaps both can be harnessed for good.

Two celebrities have recently come out and publically retaliated against the preoccupation with their weights. Lady Gaga, who allegedly gained 25lb, took to her blog, Littlemonsters.com, and posted pictures of herself in her underwear, minus make-up.

The first snap was chillingly captioned “Bulimia and Anorexia Since I Was 15.” She wrote that she is perfectly happy with her weight gain; what she is not happy way it is apparently acceptable for her weight gain or loss to become a topic of debate.

Alexa Chung, meanwhile, has railed against critics who accuse the slight presenter of being ‘thinspiration’ for anorexics.

"I think it's about time people stopped judging women on their appearance and more on their intellect," Chung said. "Like, you can appreciate my style without having to appreciate my weight. It's not actually mutually inclusive. I just get frustrated because, just because I exist in this shape, doesn't mean that I'm like advocating it and being like, 'I look great.'" She added that such commentary was fuelled by “a culture of hate.”

By publically acknowledging the hurtful and damaging nature, Gaga and Chung are paving the way for more open and frank discussion and bearing in mind findings of the How We See It survey, this can only be a good thing.

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