For the study, the researchers used data from a national survey of American adolescents to find out whether or not there were associations between how teens perceived their size, weight, and attractiveness, and their levels of alcohol and tobacco use. The study found that there is, in fact, a significant connection between perceived size and attractiveness and substance use. Adolescent girls who viewed their body size as being “too fat” were more likely to use alcohol and tobacco, according to EurekAlert.
Surprisingly, the study revealed that even adolescent girls who believe they are very attractive are also more likely to drink. Although more research is needed to uncover why that is, lead study author Virginia Ramseyer Winter, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Social Work, tells Yahoo Beauty: “In our article, we suggest that when girls are more attractive, they are more likely to be popular, which may place them in situations in which drinking is prevalent.”
But teen girls weren’t the only ones whose substance use was influenced by their body image: Boys who perceived themselves as being “too skinny” were more likely to smoke, according to the study, while adolescent boys who thought of themselves as fat were more likely to binge-drink.
As far as why poor body image leads to smoking and alcohol use in teens, Winter says it’s a complex question and that researchers don’t fully understand the answers yet. “However, it appears that the answers vary by gender and depend on the substance-use behavior in question,” she notes. “Regarding gender, we must consider the difference in our culture’s ideal body type between boys and girls. Girls are expected to be thin but curvy and fit, whereas boys should be slender and muscular.”
She continues: “Research suggests that girls who view their body negatively may use tobacco to lose or maintain their weight, whereas boys who view their body positively may use tobacco to maintain their social position. Additional research is warranted to untangle these complex relationships.”
Winter says there are several factors that influence a teenager’s body image today. “These include parents, peers, the media, and now social media,” she says. “Youth are bombarded with images of the ideal body type, a body type that is impossible for most to achieve. In addition, altered images in the media and social media are the norm, meaning that even models in the images around us often do not live up to ideal body types promoted in our culture. Additionally, it is commonplace to use filters on pictures, such as selfies in social media; thus, even pictures of friends are altered.”
The good news is that parents can take steps to help improve their teens’ body image. “Parents have a great opportunity to influence their children’s body image from a very young age,” Winter points out. “One of the most important things parents can do is to create a body-positive environment at home. Such an environment excludes diet culture, promotes health at every size, and shifts focus away from appearance. For example, from birth, baby girls are constantly told how beautiful they are. This alone is not a problem, but when our compliments only focus on appearance, we perpetuate the idea that one’s appearance determines their value.”
She continues: “Shifting our focus toward our children’s abilities and values allows children to develop in an environment where they learn to appreciate their bodies for the things their bodies allow them to do, such as play basketball or solve puzzles, rather than how their bodies look. By embracing body positivity, parents have the opportunity to significantly influence their children’s body image, thereby improving their health and well-being.”
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