Past studies show that teenagers who feel badly about the way they look are more likely to develop eating disorders and suffer from depression and low self-esteem.
Now, a new study shows that body image is also linked to increased tobacco and alcohol use, for both young men and women. But it’s not just negative body image that leads to problems. Girls who believe they are very good looking are more likely to binge drink.
“We know alcohol and tobacco can have detrimental health effects, especially for teenagers,” says Virginia Ramseyer Winter, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Missouri, and author of the study in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse.
“I wanted to see if the perception of being overweight and negative body image leads to engaging in unhealthy or risky substance use behaviors. Understanding the relationship means that interventions and policies aimed at improving body image among teenage populations might improve overall health.”
Researchers used data from a national survey of American teenagers to determine the associations between perceived size and weight, perceived attractiveness, and levels of alcohol and tobacco use.
The findings show that perceived size and attractiveness were significantly related to substance use. Adolescent girls who perceived their body size to be too fat were more likely to use alcohol and tobacco. Boys who thought they were too skinny were more likely to smoke, and boys who considered themselves fat were more likely to binge drink.
“While poor body image disproportionately affects females, our findings indicate that body image also impacts young males,” Ramseyer Winter says. “For example, it’s possible that boys who identified their bodies as too thin use tobacco to maintain body size, putting their health at risk.”
Further, researchers also looked at the connection between perceived attractiveness and substance use. Girls who thought they were not at all good looking were more likely to smoke—and girls who thought they were very good looking were more likely to binge drink, perhaps because attractiveness may be associated with popularity, which is related to increased alcohol use.
To improve body image awareness, parents, schools, and health providers need to be aware of body shaming language and correct such behavior to help children identify with positive body image messages. Body shaming language can affect teenagers who have both positive and negative perceptions of themselves.
Andrea Kennedy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, and Elizabeth O’Neill, a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, are study coauthors.
Source: University of Missouri