Friday, April 9, 2010
Teenage Girls and Body Image: A Lesson For All of Us
According to a new study published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (2010), teenage girls tend to compare their bodies more to their peers (who appear to be more similar to themselves) than they do to celebrities in the media (who appear to be in a 'different league'). An article published recently by Nancy Tracy on this very subject points to the Social Comparison Theory, a psychological theory which holds that more often than not people tend to compare themselves more to people who are similar to themselves than to those who seem to be inferior or superior. So- for example, rather than comparing your cooking skills to someone who is featured on the Food Network, maybe you compare your cooking skills to those of your neighbor, sister, friend, cousin, etc. And the analogy follows with anything- your looks, your athletic ability, your body, etc. Anyways, what they found was that in schools where the average BMI (body mass index) was higher, girls felt less pressure to diet and be thin, whereas in schools where the average BMI was lower, girls felt increased pressure to be thinner.
I think that the results of this study are powerful in that they affirm what we might already know and experience about what happens when we make comparisons about ourselves to others- which is that often, we feel that we need to be something other than what we are. We feel like we don't measure up to those around us, or that we are just not as good as so-and-so. Teenage girls might compare themselves to their peers more than they do to celebrities, but who knows what the statistics look like for adults (who probably compare themselves equally to their peers and celebrities). I think the media still shapes and influences our standards of beauty in a way that we may never fully comprehend, but I think the act of comparing ourselves to others is an important thing to step back and evaluate.
Someone very wise once told me that "comparison is the thief of all joy" and that has stuck with me ever since-- it is so true! That phrase often comes to mind because we are conditioned to look around us to see where we fit in the pecking order, and usually the act of comparing ourselves to others leads to feelings of inferiority, insecurity, anxiety, frustration, discontentment, and so on. Whenever we compare ourselves to others, we don't usually feel better about ourselves- we feel worse! And on the rare occasion that we do feel better, the sense of confidence we gain from that is false and empty. One quote (by Max Ehrmann) that I love which speaks to this: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” We all at times are so busy worrying about how we measure up that we lose out on being ourselves, and we aren't able to enjoy who God made us to be. Another one of my favorite quotes is by Judy Garland- she said, "Be a first-rate version of yourself, rather than a second-rate version of someone else." I think she had it right! We are the only ones who can be the best at being us- so let's focus on that!! We all have strengths, talents and interests that make us unique and when we aren't able to see those for what they are, we miss out! The next time you find yourself comparing yourself to someone else, stop and consider your God-given strengths, abilities and beauty. The idea is not to become vain or to become self-absorbed; however, it is important that we strive to see ourselves for who we are, rather than viewing ourselves through a filter that is designed to categorize and classify our worth based on another.
*On a side note, one other thing worth pointing out from Tracy's article is the following: "Perhaps one exception to the rule of teenage girls comparing themselves to their peers is teenage girls with low self-esteem, a subgroup that often develops eating disorders. These teenage girls tend to compare themselves upward instead of to their peers, a possible subconscious attempt to preserve their negative self-image by comparing themselves to a less attainable ideal." Just an interesting sub-point that I will come back to in another post that highlights the perfectionistic nature that tends to pervade those who suffer from eating disorders. And just for the record, how many teenagers out there don't suffer from negative self-image? That is a post for another day... To read Tracy's article in full, follow this link.