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Teens Seeking Physical Perfection at Risk

Armen Hareyan's picture

Teen Health and Celebrity Image

Glossy pages of magazines are filled with stunning celebrities and rail-thin models - leading more teens to experience eating disorders and distorted body images.

"Surprisingly, men are becoming increasingly preoccupied with their body image," said Dr. John Sargent, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Ben Taub General Hospital. "Teens who are extremely preoccupied with their looks may do excessive amounts of exercise or are extreme dieters, and these are major concerns."

Some thin women distort reality by seeing themselves as fat. This type of distortion is rampant and explains why so many women are susceptible to eating disorders, where the pursuit of thinness is driven by faulty perceptions rather than reality, Sargent said.

"How teens perceive themselves when they look in the mirror can have more of an effect on their risk for depression and suicide than the actual numbers on the bathroom scale," he said. "The media makes teens feel like there's a certain way that they are supposed to look and usually that's a degree of physical perfection that very few people actually achieve. Parents need to look for warning signs. They can't expect their teenager to come forth and admit that they have a problem."

The characteristics of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have much in common. The teen will often decide to go on a diet, although to everyone else they may not appear to be overweight. They become preoccupied with food, nutrition and calories, sensitive about eating or prefer to eat alone rather than with the family. They may also exercise obsessively, have difficulty sleeping, seem socially withdrawn from friends and appear afraid of gaining weight. At this point, the teen is in trouble and may need professional help. Weight loss or purging may also be presenting physical risks.

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How do you get past the images you see in the mirror?

  • Focus on the qualities that you like that are not related to appearance

  • Pick friends who are not overly concerned with weight or appearance

  • Exercise for strength, fitness, and health, not just weight control

  • If you can't get over your bad body image, consider seeking professional help from a psychiatrist

  • Learn to accept how you look and build on the physical, intellectual and social skills and abilities that you have

"A healthy desire to keep your body well and fit can be taken to an extreme and become unhealthy, and that's what we need to guard against," Sargent said.