A key to reduce body-image pressure among youngsters

Too heavy, too thin, too fat, too short, too wide... “All” young people suffer from body-image pressure, but a few simple measures imposed by schools could make their everyday lives easier. Boys in particular struggle to accept permanent help.

Group of cheering youngsters  in a classroom
The classroom environment is important for how each individual perceives himself and his body. From one of the many schools Christine Sundgot-Borgen and Kethe Engen visited. Photo: Christine Sundgot-Borgen
  • How can young people experience a better relationship with their own bodies?
  • Would their health and quality of life be better then?
  • And if we succeeded in helping those who struggle, what would the effects be?
Christine Sundgot-Borgen is a doctoral research fellow at the Department of Sports Medicine at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences.

These were the sort of questions that Christine Sundgot-Borgen asked herself before she and her colleague, Kethe Engen, contacted 4,000 sixteen-year olds at 30 different schools in the Oslo and Akershus area. Since this is a highly sensitive subject, it would take up to a whole year before she obtained the answers.

The study monitors a wide range of body image changes in adolescents, based on improving their health and body image and encouraging them to accept their own bodies, with the aim of being able to better deal with poor body experiences (including on the beach). Similarly: teach them to eat and exercise without stress and pressure. It is all about accepting oneself in a society where we are constantly told that we can always obtain an even better version of ourselves.

How young people experience themselves and the values that they impose upon themselves is decisive for their quality of life. It can decide how they treat themselves and others, the type of activities they participate in and how they look after their own health. Having a good self-image, self-esteem and body image is important for one’s mental, social and physical development as one moves forward into adulthood.

Christine Sundgot-Borgen, NIH researcher

 "Ripped" body

Both boys and girls see the same things, all the time: Social media sites in particular are jam-packed with images of ideal bodies and model figures, firm, large breasts, hips, waistlines, clearly defined six-packs and broad chests, strong arms and legs (and definitely without any signs of any excess fat).

Kethe Engen and Christine Sundgot-Borgen visited and talked with young people at 30 different secondary schools in Oslo and Akershus. Photo: Private

In addition to looking great and being healthy, they are supposed to be academically clever, good friends and boyfriends/girlfriends - so it is hard to say that you are satisfied with yourself and your own body.

"Many of the boys talked about having "ripped" bodies and..."

"Ripped...?"

Body image: About having a poor relationship with one’s body.
This affects how it is experienced in different social contexts, how you see others, how you do it in arenas where it is important to perform, such as the sports field. Negative focus on the body will deflect one’s attention from real work and performance.

“Dissatisfaction with the body”: dissatisfaction with one’s body is part of this: 

It is when one is dissatisfied with one or more parts of the body, e.g. size, shape, height, weight and body composition, etc.

"Defined bodies, bodies with defined musculature and very little subcutaneous fat”, explains Christine Sundgot-Borgen. "They said that it was quite possible to exercise and eat their way to having their dream body - but what gradually emerged was the extent to which body-improvement projects like this affected their everyday lives."

This is the teenage catwalk. We have pupils who bunk off school if they don’t get time to wash their hair.

Rector at an Akershus School

For everyone

When they visited the schools the two researchers met the young people on three occasions. On each occasion they spent two lessons addressing the subject of body image and what affects it, and not least what they themselves had experienced.

“Self-esteem is not always that easy to talk about, so we started our discussions in small groups before we addressed any issues with the whole class,” says Christine Sundgot-Borgen.

“The success of this was dependent on the situation in each class and how good it was. The important thing was that as many pupils as possible had the opportunity to hear about problems and solutions from others, so the situation was normalised and was something that they were all involved in.”

Huge sacrifices

Many of the pupils, both boys and girls, thought that it was quite possible to come close to achieving an ideal body, even if it required a big effort - and sacrifice.

“They talked about building up their muscles and reducing their percentage of body fat, etc; muscles become more clearly defined if you have less body fat.”
However, during class they then discussed the type of frequent exercise required, fine-tuning one’s diet and nutritional supplements, taking hormones and having to drop out of pizza nights and social events with friends, etc., if they wanted to achieve their body goals.

“They concluded that it would be too expensive and that they would not be such good friends and boyfriends/girlfriends, and they didn’t want that. The same applied to the girls.”

Harmful ideal

“That discovered that it is hard. You cannot build up your muscles or be attentive at school if you lack energy. And in order to have enough nourishment to build up your muscles, you cannot simultaneously get rid of your body fat.”

She says that young bodies which are developing and growing should devote their energy to other things than developing a “ripped” body. They do not have enough growth hormones to do that, and the fat percentage for an “ideal body” is harmful to health.

“But not enough young people understand that, because the industry and media tell them quite a different story,” says Christine Sundgot-Borgen.

The young people also discovered that they did not have much money left for their social lives or clothes when they spent everything on exercise.

Having an ideal body is not realistic; and they gradually started to realise that. But before they actually KNOW that, it is hard to make any progress.

explains NIH researcher Christine Sundgot-Borgen.

Unavoidable

Christine Sundgot-Borgen and her project group initiated their project with members of this age group because she knows that they are the ones who are most at risk. Or: actually it is the 12-14 year-olds who are most at risk, but the researchers needed participants with sufficient cognitive development to be able to reflect on, discuss and provide good answers to their questions. Furthermore, young people over the age of 16 could provide their own consent.

“But you can’t really avoid body-image pressure, can you? You can’t really turn off things like social media, can you?

“No, that’s right, but we discovered that we could teach them how to make better use of social media and other techniques for dealing with the pressure.”

Learning to help themselves

“What causes a poor body image?”

“It’s not easy to answer that. Obviously biological factors play a part, and we are influenced by various ideals presented by older siblings, friends, celebrities, trainers, health professionals and head teachers, as well as the industry and advertising,” - and she adds:

“We have tried to teach young people who are always comparing themselves with others about the following: they need to ask themselves how they benefit from making such comparisons. Is it actually possible for me to become like him or her? What do I need to do, and what will I have to give up? How much time will it involve, and is it worth it? And: what about my genes: could I actually become so tall/broad/slim/muscular...?”

She says that we cannot avoid comparing ourselves with others, but that we need to learn techniques that are designed to tackle making destructive comparisons, and that we need to find someone who we can realistically look up to instead. “Questions are then asked about how we can use social media, the TV, blogs, friends... Maybe we should instead follow people who are positive and drop those who put you in a bad mood, no matter what?”

I thought that it was wrong to have any body fat, and that I needed to lose weight, but even so I put on weight. It was good to hear that this is normal and actually healthy. We should have learnt this at school a long time ago.

Girl, aged 16.

Permanent effects - at least for the girls

The measures worked. At least for the girls: for the boys the effects gradually disappeared.

“We were most successful with helping the girls. At the start they were struggling more and they were behind in respect of all the psychological variables, so they more room for improvement that the boys. The girls were also more successful in sticking to what they had learnt,” says Christine Sundgot-Borgen. The questionnaire circulated during the final round, one year after the start of the project, clearly showed that the boys had lost a lot.

“The most important thing was that it was possible to help so many pupils in such an easy way,” she says, and mentions that several of the girls approached her and told her about having eureka moments.

She believes that the reason why they were less successful with the boys MAY be related to the fact that the two teachers were female and that maybe they were less successful in teaching the boys. “Or maybe the boys were not cognitively mature enough, or that they needed to use slightly different techniques with them. We don’t know.”

“Even so,” she says, “the results are so good that schools definitely need to include this in their classes.”

I was always comparing myself to my big sister, but now I understand that we are two different people. Comparing myself with her did not change who I was or provide me with any other positive things. I understand that it is OK not to exercise every day and that I can also eat chocolate sometimes, even if my sister makes other choices.

Girl, age 16.

A job for the schools

The whole project started with a questionnaire designed to identify the status of the young people before any measures were introduced. Around half of the 4,000 respondents provided answers during the first round.  After that they visited two schools which were picked at random to be included in the trial. A total of 113 workshops were held. Both the trial schools and a corresponding number of control schools were asked the same questions four times, in advance and then three times after most of the school visits had been concluded.

The survey showed that the same problems were more or less prevalent across the board, regardless of the area and the academic standards of the schools concerned.

“Building up good, realistic body awareness is extremely important for our future lives. People of many different ages are aware of this, but is it especially tough for your people. If we have managed to help even a few of them to better accept and take care of themselves and others and to acquire a healthier perception of what exercise and diet are all about, then we have succeeded.

They should not engage in exercise in order to obtain an ideal body, but because it is fun and because they can meet up, chat and do something nice together. Teaching them this is something that schools need to take must more seriously.”