According to a nationwide survey titled “How we see it: Survey on Young People’s Body Image”, Irish teenagers suffer high levels of mental stress because of body image issues. Girls in particular have problems with how they perceive their body.
The study was launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, this week. It was conducted in light of an initiative from Dáil na nÓg, Ireland’s national youth parliament, and was carried out with the help of Dr Angela O’Connell, an independent research consultant and trainer, and Dr Shirley Martin, a lecturer at the Department of Applied Social Studies at UCC.
Irish youths are less satisfied with their body image than teenagers in other nations. A recent Australian study showed that only 32 per cent of teenagers there consider their body image to be of major concern to them. In Ireland, that figure is 40 per cent.
Responding to the findings, Minister Fitzgerald said: “Having conducted this survey, and having found how Irish teenagers are more sensitive to concerns over body-image than in other countries, I think there is an onus on all of us to understand this survey and its detailed findings.”
In the survey, 77 per cent of participants said that their body image was important to them. The good news of the result is that more than half of the young people asked are satisfied with their body image. 22 per cent of the boys and only 8 per cent of the girls were very satisfied with their looks. Many however felt themselves under pressure to look good for other people. This is particularly true for young girls: 70 per cent of them felt so, while for boys it was only 46 per cent.
At about 15…there were a maximum of three or four in the class that were actually happy to go swimming…peoples self esteem had gone
- Kaila Dunne
The study also tried to find out what factors impact the way young people perceive themselves. Activities, sports, confidence, friends, and family are the strongest factors on the positive side. However, comparing yourself with others, bullying, the media, and celebrities lead the list of negative influences.
Interestingly, girls put the most pressure on themselves, while boys feel most pressure from outside. Girls named the most negative influence on their body image the practice of comparing themselves with others (66 per cent). For boys, it was bullying (41 per cent).
“One lad in particular, he’d be a bit big or overweight, you’d see him and the lads would be slagging him and calling him names,” said Micháel O hÓgáin of the Dáil na nÓg Council, as he recalled one of his experiences.
The study also revealed significant gender-related differences in other aspects. For example, 85 per cent of girls put time into their appearance. For boys, it was only 54 per cent. The detrimental mental impact of poor body image was also shown by the fact that 60 per cent of the female participants put emotional effort into their appearance. That was true for only half of the boys. Emotional effort can range from planning, thinking about ones appearance, to worrying about it. 11 per cent of girls even started smoking with the aim of controlling hunger in order to lose weight. Boys do sports more for enjoyment, while twice as many girls as boys name weight loss as a motivation. 15 per cent of them, however, take diet aids or body-building supplements.
While half of the teenagers asked did not feel a negative impact of their body image on their activities, the other half felt detrimental effects. The first activity to suffer is often swimming.
“In third year when we all hit about 15, none of the girls… I’d say there was a maximum of three or four in the class that were actually happy to go swimming. Because nobody was comfortable with wearing those swimming suits in front of other people in the class. Everybody’s perception of themselves had changed, and peoples self esteem had gone,” said Kaila Dunne from the Dáil na nÓg Council in a interview with RTE.
Nearly a third of the girls said that their body image makes it harder for them to put pictures of themselves on Facebook. For boys it was only 14 per cent.
“Putting pictures on Facebook anyway can be a very difficult thing for a girl to do. They might not want to look at a picture of themselves and think: “Oh God, that’s horrible, I can’t put that up,” said Kaila Dunne.
More than twice as many people took part in this survey as is standard for representative studies. According to Ms Fitzgerald, this gives the study greater importance, which is one of many reasons the results should be closely heeded.
“I think that the fact that 2,156 teenagers from Comhairle na nÓg all over Ireland completed this survey gives it a significant validity,” Ms Fitzgerald said at the launch of the report.
The students in Dáil na nÓg expressed their wish that schools would play a larger role in promoting a positive body image. “The schools themselves need to play a more active role in promoting a positive body image, both in the curriculum and in things like the provision of healthy eating options and making exercise more interesting and active instead of it being a compulsory thing that people are just trying to get out of,” said Ms O’Connell in a RTE interview. According to the study, experiences in Australia show that such measures can have a very positive effect.
Dáil na nÓg, the organisation that initiated the survey, is the National Youth Parliament of Ireland. It is an elected body composed of girls and boys aged between 12 and 18. It is organised by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
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