'Sex Educated' Series: Why is body image in such poor shape?

In day four of our five-day series of extracts from ‘Sex Educated’ - a one-stop-shop guide for parents and teenagers to all things sex, relationships, bodies, puberty, porn, gender, sexuality, anatomy and so much more - sex and intimacy expert GRACE ALICE O SÉ writes about body image
'Sex Educated' Series: Why is body image in such poor shape?

An illustration by Ciara Coogan in 'Sex Educated'.

BODY image describes how we view and appraise our bodies and the meaning which we attach to our appearance. As we enter puberty, we begin to feel more conscious about how our body looks, feels, and moves, although this can also happen long before puberty too.

Poor body image affects teenagers more than people of any other age. This may be attributed to a growing sense of becoming a sexual being, the wish to appear desirable to the people who we find attractive, and also the more general, tale-as-old-as-time concerns about ‘fitting in’ and dodging rejection by our peers.

However, the above concerns have been around for a long time, so why is body image in such particularly poor shape today? Research has shown that teen body image is suffering more than ever before. Many experts believe it is a result of the heightened exposure to unrealistic body ideals, due to the rapid rise of popularity in social media, particularly video and image-based apps such as TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. Combine the pressure to rack up likes and followers with the physical, hormonal, and social changes that accompany puberty, and suddenly body image becomes a pressing concern for adolescents.

The way we feel about our body often has knock-on effects concerning our mental, physical, and sexual health. It can affect every aspect of our lives; our self-esteem, confidence, relationships, eating and exercise behaviours, academic performance, sexual health behaviours and beyond. 

Consistent, negative feelings towards our own bodies can greatly damage both our health and happiness. It is good to be aware of what can affect your body image online, at school, on TV, etc. and think a little about it.

Grace Alice Ó Sé.
Grace Alice Ó Sé.

Teasing out the ‘why’ of body image is powerful. Why do you feel that being this weight isn’t beautiful or attractive or worthy? We are sold ‘flaws’, and then sold a product to ‘fix’ said flaws. Ask yourself “Who is making money from me feeling this way about this part of my body?”. Critical thinking is such an important and empowering skill that you can sharpen over time.

Accepting and loving our bodies can be a challenge in a world that is constantly telling us to change our bodies. We must also take the spotlight off the physical body itself and allow room for the celebration of all the other far more important qualities that make a person who they are.

Imagine how good we can make others feel if we compliment them on their skills, quirks, abilities, achievements, talents, and personality traits, rather than just their looks. It is a slow and at times challenging process, but we encourage everyone to start unlearning. Begin to change the way you speak about other humans. Practice (and it does take practice) talking about people, including celebrities, in a way that is not solely appearance focused. This is something we can work towards as individuals, and this makes way for change on a bigger level.

We can tell others that they are beautiful, but in the same breath tell them that their beauty is the least interesting thing about them. That they do not need to believe what any advertisement from the beauty, weight loss, fitness industry etc. is telling them. For example, that they already have a bikini body (a bikini plus literally any body equals a bikini body) and that they do not need to ‘get in shape’ because they already have a shape.

As young people, you can break the endless cycle of body-shaming and appearance-based obsession that comes with each generation. You can help to create a kinder society for our little ones, in which people value one another for far more than how they look.

More about the guide ‘Sex Educated’: The information above was taken from Chapter 9 of Sex Educated, which explores all different kind of relationships, including the relationship we have with ourselves.

‘Sex Educated’ is a one-stop-shop guide for parents and teenagers to all things sex, relationships, bodies, puberty, porn, gender, sexuality, anatomy, and so much more. The book is a collaboration between Sexual Health West and sex & intimacy specialist Grace Alice Ó Sé (graduate of NUI Galway and UCC), illustrated by Ciara Coogan. It comprises of hundreds of questions that have been put to Grace and her fellow sex educators by young people in schools all over the West of Ireland. It is written in an accessible, comprehensive and sex positive Q&A style, allowing readers to dip in and out of the content as they need it. The information below was taken from Chapter 5 of Sex Educated, which explores technology and sex.

Sex Educated can be bought from sexualhealthwest.ie.

More about the author

Grace Alice is a sex educator and intimacy coach from Kerry. She delivers workshops in schools and universities, as well as working privately with adults and couples. You can learn more about her work at gracealice.com.

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