Youth, Body Image, Aging

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I’m working on a style and body image project that centers on teen girls, and it has been an amazing experience so far. I’ve interviewed about a dozen teens from all across the U.S. and it was incredibly eye-opening to get their input on these topics. Only a few had experiences with online bullying, most of them had very strong opinions about people and styles they viewed as “slutty,” nearly all of them post selfies on Instagram, and at least 75% of them think Taylor Swift has great fashion sense. I loved hearing from them and getting them to talk about their own levels of self-confidence, how they conceptualize their personal styles, and how they’re affected by the media.

I’ve talked to friends about this project, and they’ve all expressed excitement and optimism. Many have said something along the lines of, “If you get to them young, maybe the next generation of women won’t become quite so bogged down by weight worries and body image issues.” And I hope that’s true. I hope so hard that’s true, I can barely express it. If I can help even one teen girl feel better about herself and move through the world unencumbered by body dysmorphia or self-image hang-ups, I will be thrilled beyond words. Seriously. And there’s a very good chance that will happen.

But.

I hate to doubt something that hasn’t even come to fruition yet, but there is a but.

Based on my own experiences and the anecdotes I’ve been told by clients, readers, and friends, I’ve come to believe that adolescence can be a period of individually specific hazing that can’t be easily influenced or redirected. As an adult, you can step in, take a teen girl by the hand, tell her about media literacy and Health At Every Size and the power of style, and she still might have to battle her own inner body image demons for a few years. All the facts and tools and support in the world may prevent the onset of self-loathing and help her move toward a positive body image, or it may land on deaf ears until she has learned and grown a bit more. I had to live through my own body-centric worries for many years and come to understand things through personal experience. I can’t honestly say if a body image intervention at age 14 or 16 would’ve helped me. It might have, and I do wish I’d had more forums for discussion and supportive resources to consult. But it might have bounced right off of me because I needed to work through those lessons on my own.

Aging is quite the double-edged sword. As women age, we often feel devalued and ignored. Youth is so prized in our time and culture that an aging woman can feel unimportant to the point of invisibility. And yet as we age, many women also worry less about what people think and say about us. As my girlfriends and I get older, some of the issues that once plagued us fall away, diminish in importance, pale in comparison with the priorities we’ve set for ourselves and our families. And because we’ve lived through these decades had had these lives and accumulated this knowledge, we can let them fall away and feel lighter for the release of burden. But somehow, sadly, our younger selves just couldn’t. We needed to have experiences and learn things for ourselves, and those things could only happen with time, patience, aging.

Humans are stubborn and often need direct, personal experience to make a lesson sink in. Some things can be taught and influenced, some just have to be lived through. So I expect that this project won’t have the far-reaching impact that I dream it could. But I am in favor of offering tools and knowledge and support at all ages and stages of life. And if one teen girl feels better, that will be enough.

Image courtesy kris krüg.

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4 Responses to “Youth, Body Image, Aging”

  1. vlg

    The body focus of teens has a lot to do with biology, don’t you think? That’s just the time when their bodies are changing in marvelous and scary ways. It forces the focus right there on all the little details. Teen girls are also social creatures, so comparison has to be natural. So, you’re right. No matter what we “elders” say, all that focus on body image is not going to go away. But don’t stop; keep spreading the message that all bodies are wonderful and beautiful. Even if it makes just that one girl feel better about herself, she’s worth it.

  2. Jean Thilmany

    Very well said. I couldn’t agree more. I also feel it’s true for other issues (at least pertaining to girls, of which I was one, so I only have that experience), including self confidence in other areas, sexuality, many things. That being said, our culture in no way helps.

  3. beate @ bahnwaerterhaeuschen

    i think that planting a positive body image into a girls (and boys) mind has to start much earlier then in the teenage years! think the age one to six. and of cause not (only) by talking to them – but in that that we older women and mothers and grannies have to be a body-positive role model!
    we are “our” culture!!
    xx

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