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Health and weight (young people)

Body image

Body image is a person’s idea of what they look like. It’s like a picture we have in our mind of what we think other people see when they look at us. The picture we have of ourselves may be different to what other people see and we may like or dislike the way we look. Teenagers tend to be particularly conscious of the way they look, so their body image can be closely linked to how they feel about themselves as a person (their self-esteem).
 
The teenagers we spoke to felt the most unhappy with their appearance if they could not wear clothes they liked or when they thought that no one liked them (see Clothes and shopping and Friends, relationships and weight).
 
Parents said they found it hard to see their children feeling bad about their bodies and worrying about how others see them. It is most upsetting for parents to hear their children saying negative things about themselves because of their weight and size. Parents wanted to help their children accept themselves as they were, while encouraging and supporting them to have a healthier lifestyle.
 

Edward says he is not overweight but has always wanted the 'perfect' image.

Edward says he is not overweight but has always wanted the 'perfect' image.

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Body image, what can I say. I was never ever fat but you always wanted sort of that perfect image so I used to do sort of gym work and I did martial arts, and I still do now. And you always just wanted the sort of ideal image which you assume for a man is sort of the six pack, large pecks, muscle, but not, not body builder gigantic, more just sort of that you look slim, but underneath you looked quite sculpted and toned so to say.
 
Body image issues as well, when I started losing my hair at 16, that was quite a big body image issue as well, and that makes you realise a lot of things too, which you never think about, often acne as well, that’s a very big body issue thing, and teenagers as well, although, the fact of acne sort of starts to wear off, well not so much the actual disease itself but the the psychological effects of acne, once you’ve had it for so many years, and I’ve had it for about six years now, and you just kind of, you actually almost forget sometimes, that you’ve had it really.
 
I would say height can be an issue with body image too, but that depends on confidence really. Before secondary school and I wasn’t so confident I used to not like being so tall ‘cos I’d stand out from the crowd, now I actually like it ‘cos it’s a big beneficial thing. That’s all I can really think of start off with for body image really.
 
I would never say that, I mean, I used to have a small amount of what you would call sort of baby fat on the stomach, but once I started doing exercising on a proper level, i.e. through martial arts, that went. And that was sort of a transition, but you always worry about being quite skinny as well. When you’re going through puberty, especially around 14 then sort of the working out with the arms sort of comes in, it’s like who can have the biggest biceps, say, who can have the biggest triceps, say. I’m not amazingly into that, but obviously, you know, you would always be sort of quite in awe of people who, who’d worked out quite a lot with weights and so, I’ve never ever been fat, so I’ve never ever had to worry about that, in fact loads of people just say I’m skinny. Which is fine for me because I’ve never seen that as an offensive thingy whatsoever. But some people do find that… a problem, I think it; I think men can get away with being fatter than women actually. I think although that doesn’t mean to say that obesity is less of a problem with women, I just think women worry about it more. 
 

Mary finds it hard to see her son struggling with his body image.

Mary finds it hard to see her son struggling with his body image.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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Well I would say sort of putting it under an umbrella, it sort of a lack of confidence, a lack of self-confidence. And everything revolves about how he looks, or if he’s going somewhere, he was going to wear. Not so much from the point of view of the, the clothes but if he looked fat in them. So that’s a very dominant thing, “Does this make me look fat?” And, “Do I look fat in this?”
 
And I think how he views himself, as I say, he will be very derogatory about himself. You know, “I hate myself. I’m a lazy, fat boy.” And, and various things like that.
 
It really just, he can’t, I mean as he would put it in his own words, he just can’t relax in situations because he’s got, you know, he’s always so worried about what people see, see him as and even though we’ve sat down and, you know, tried to talk to him about that people should accept you as a person and it’s not all about your appearance, that doesn’t seem to convince him and I think at that age it probably doesn’t anyway. You know, he, I suppose part of it too is wanting to be part of the crowd. And he doesn’t want to be different in any way.
 
You know, wish they could just accept people for what they are rather than, you know, but in his mind happiness is associated with being thin. So, you know, and I do worry from time to time, oh, could he tip over the edge into eating disorder or something but hopefully not. 
Impact of other people
Many people talked about constantly comparing their own appearance, shape and weight to others their own age. This was something that often left them feeling more insecure and embarrassed. Steevie began to notice her fingers were bigger and that her feet and ankles were wider than those of other people. She said that she became ‘obsessive’ about her body. It can also be difficult to hear friends who do not have a weight problem complain that they are ‘fat’.  
 

Huw says that when you are big you 'stick out' and it makes you feel unattractive.

Huw says that when you are big you 'stick out' and it makes you feel unattractive.

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Body image. I think that’s quite, that’s a major one, which makes you feel pretty bad, just wanting to fit in really. Because that’s what everyone, everyone wants to fit in with crowd. And although that’s less, less of a problem now because now I’m becoming comfortable with who I am, and so I really, I mean I don’t fit in who cares? But before, like when younger years, when I just wanted to fit in, just wanted to be part of the crowd and not to stick out like a sore thumb, that’s why and what else, that’s about it.
 
And this sort of wanting to fit in, that was because you wanted to be the same size, or look the same as other people or?
It wasn’t as much fitting in as just not sticking out. Because sticking out, when when someone sees the person who looks, who is bigger than quite, most of them, almost everyone there, that makes you feel really bad. And, it ‘cos you stick out, sometimes you just want to like become invisible and just blend into the wallpaper. But never gonna happen.

In primary school it was probably that, but towards secondary school it was more me thinking it, not cos, at secondary school I got more and more who cares about, I don’t care what anybody else thinks. So to work out I, what I think about myself. I, it was all came down, my self image, I wanted to be smaller and I wanted to be able to shop with my friends, and I wanted to like go out and have and have fun with my friends without thinking that, and I wanted to have more money instead of spend less money on food. Yeah.

I’ve got some friends who although as being as skinny as anything, keep going to me, “Oh I’m so fat, I’m...,” sometimes you just want to punch them, right in the face because if I were to go like, “Oh well that’s nothing,” I mean it makes you feel really bad ‘cos if they’re going, “Oh I’m too fat,” how’s that supposed to make, supposed to make you feel ‘cos when you’re like twice the size of ‘em? So it’s more body image as in like feeling good and feeling attractive, that kind of thing ‘cos it’s just really hard ‘cos when everyone else is getting boyfriends and girlfriends, you’re just like, “Oh that sucks.” 
 
 

Becca used to feel that she'd do anything to fit in with her peers.

Becca used to feel that she'd do anything to fit in with her peers.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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I mean now, couldn’t care less about fitting in at all I’ve kind of gone past that stage but before my whole life would revolve around it, everything I would do would be so they would think this about me, or to change people’s perspectives, and I can see now it was, you know, a really bad take to have on life [laughs] but yeah every, every thing I, that, like before now if I ever tried to lose weight it would be because I wanted to fit in to this size jean or I wanted to look like this person you know? Which I knew, I know now is all the wrong reasons to do it, but yeah fitting in, especially when you are bullied, you think if I can look like them they will leave me alone, but obviously again I know now that is not the case, you know, people just pick on you for the sake of it. And yeah so, God fitting in it did really ruin, not ruin my life but it took over my life quite a lot you know? I would do anything to just fit that perfect model which again I know now [laughs] there isn’t one them, so yeah.
 
Is it important to fit in then do you think?
 
If I go back a few years it was the most important thing in my life, just to fit in and fit a certain category, now it doesn’t bother me, if I don’t fit in then that is their opinion, you know, it is other people’s opinion if they don’t think I fit in but, yeah when I was younger God if I wasn’t part of like a friends group that wasn’t cool then I think ‘well why? You know why aren’t we cool? Why aren’t we getting the same kind of, you know, looks and views of other people as other people do in this school?’ and, you know, things like that so God yeah it was important.
The young people we spoke to were also worried about what other people thought of them. Some felt that they were left out of friendship groups just because of their size. They felt that others did not like them and put them down because of the way they look. This made them feel bad about themselves. Even a passing comment made by a relative or a friend about body size could be very distressing. The feeling of being judged prevented young people from doing what they wanted to do, like exercising in the park. They worried about being laughed at.
 

Emily knows what it's like to be criticised by others because of your appearance.

Emily knows what it's like to be criticised by others because of your appearance.

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So, but people just, when they say, “Oh I don’t like your ‘cos of the way you look,” and stuff like that, it can put, really put people down and it can really make them feel horrible about themselves and they can think that they’ve got to do, go out and buy certain things, and, do certain things that they don’t want to do.
 
Has that happened to you ever?
 
Probably a couple of times like, you know, people would say, “Oh I’m, you’re fat, I’m thin,” and stuff like that, and most of the time I’d just ignore them ‘cos I’d think, “Oh they’re…” if, if you get bullied, which has happened to me a couple of times but not as much as other people get bullied, but if people bully it’s because they’ve got problems of their own. So, yeah and people have tried to put pressure on me before, but if I don’t want to get something I don’t get it.
 
Now if I don’t look a certain way then I don’t need to be friends with someone who, who’s like that.
 
I was in the first year of secondary school and I was in I think it was in music and there was one of my friends who was stuck and I was trying to explain, and this girl just goes, “Oh shut up [name], you know, I’m smart, you’re thick, I’m thin, you’re fat.” And I just ran out of the classroom crying, and, you know, and I just think it’s horrible that people do that anyway. 
Pressure from society 
Young people said that they feel a lot of pressure to look a certain way. Those in their early teens felt the most pressure from other young people and the media to be skinnier. Some said that growing up would have been much easier if they had been a smaller size. At the age of thirteen Becca thought that the only way for her to lose the weight and solve her problems was to have surgery. Some thought that other issues to do with appearance like problem hair or acne would have been easier to deal with if ‘only’ their weight had not been such a problem. 
 

In her early teens Becca thought that losing weight was the answer to all her problems.

In her early teens Becca thought that losing weight was the answer to all her problems.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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There was a lot of negative kind of, it wasn’t just about my weight it was about other things like, but mostly if I had been thinner and because mostly it was about my hair because I had that afro hair and that is what most of the bullying was about, but I think if I had been thinner, well at the time I thought this, if I had been thinner I don’t think it would have come up as much you know? Like I don’t think it would have played that part of an issue, so yeah, yeah.
 
 
I mean even today, like it doesn’t bother me as much now, I’m quite open with the size I am and, but at the time I would do anything to try and hide how big I was, anything. Right I would, I remember at one point I even said to my mum, “Can I have that operation where they staple the stomach?” And, you know, it wasn’t, you know, it, like it’s really stupid now to think about it but at the time that was what I needed to do, you know, just in order to stop everything that was going on and to stop the negative kind of connotations with me and things like that.
 
How old were you then when you said that?
 
Thirteen maybe? And yeah so, I remember [laughs] my mum said to me, she said, “Don’t be stupid.” And she went, “Becca there are other ways.” And I went, “Yeah there are other ways but it takes time doesn’t it?” And like with this I knew that it would be, not instant, but literally within months where it would show a difference. And, you know, that, that’s how extreme [laughs] it had got that I was willing to have surgery to change, well I thought it would change how people saw me and that I would get all these new amazing friends but yeah totally, that’s how extremely [laughs] it got, it did get really bad at one point so.
Several parents think that there is a lot of pressure on young people in this country, over their appearance. Young people who have recently moved to the UK from other countries noticed this too. 
 

Carrie thinks people are more worried about their size in the UK than they were in Africa, where she lived before.

Carrie thinks people are more worried about their size in the UK than they were in Africa, where she lived before.

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Why was that a problem, just to be a bigger size?
 
Because I was, because I was used to being the smallest, one of the smallest in the class. And suddenly I wasn’t. I was sort of middle to top end. And I don’t, I mean I compare, I suppose I compare myself with other people all the time. But that wasn’t, it was less of an issue, I don’t remember it being an issue in Africa at all. Because there was less of a comparison. You know, people were different sizes and it didn’t really matter. Whereas here, everyone’s a lot more fashion conscious and size conscious and celebrities are really skinny. And there’s al-, you know, you read magazines and there’s always diets and things, no matter how skinny you are. I’ve got a friend who’s, you know, never happy. And she is tiny. And she still thinks that she should lose weight. And I don’t know why that is. But it’s just that whole thing about, you know, you need to be skinny and, all the time. Which is not really, I hate that bit. I don’t like that at all. I’d rather be happy the way I was and just, you know, if I do put on weight, not have the pressure of thinking, you know, you’re the bigger person in the class. Which I s-, I never was really, so I couldn’t say from that perspective if the other people in Africa did feel that way. But I don’t remember, people weren’t bullied for their size at all. It wasn’t sort of, it wasn’t, you know, you wouldn’t be called names or openly bullied because you were bigger than anyone else. I mean we were, there were sort of race issues and that sort of thing you could be bullied for. But I wasn’t aware of being, if you were a different size, that everyone else, or, you know, fat or skinny, it didn’t really, you weren’t really bullied for it. Although there was one girl in the class who was very skinny and she used to get teased a few times for being too skinny. That had nothing to do with her. It wasn’t her fault. But she used to get teased a bit. But it wasn’t, so that was, it was kind of the opposite to over here. Because o-, over here, you know, if you’re really skinny, the g-, the guys like you. And that’s, you know, that would be the normal. 
 

The pressure to be thin is not the same in all countries; in some countries women are expected to carry more weight. Anaan and Naz talked about how this preference in their communities could make it difficult when they were trying to lose weight.
 

Anaan says that, culturally, black women are 'expected to be bigger' and this makes it harder to realise that you have a weight problem.

Anaan says that, culturally, black women are 'expected to be bigger' and this makes it harder to realise that you have a weight problem.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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Anaan' Well when we, when I was younger anyway, and one thing I found around being black myself and being from an ethnic minority, people always, its not even just other people, its people who are black, always say, “Oh yes. Black girls are bigger. They’ve always got big bums.” You know what I mean.
 
Naz' Its true.
 
Anaan' It sounds bad but they always say, white girls tend to be skinny, but black girls usually are bigger. That’s just the way you’re built. So that for me, its harder when you’re black to realise you know, that you’re actually bigger then normal. Because it always seems, you will always be, what’s your problem. Do you know what I mean. That’s just the way you are. There’s nothing wrong with you.
 
Naz' We all come in different shapes and sizes.
 
Anaan' All black girls are like that, do you know what I mean? Usually its black girls who are skinny get criticised, “What’s wrong with you, don’t you eat?” Do you see what I mean. So being bigger, its like, “Oh you’re normal. What’s wrong with that anorexic girl.” Do you know its that kind of thing. So for you to realise you know, what actually I am big, there is something I need to do about this because its getting to the point where I am too big. Its hard because people don’t really want you to see that you have a problem.
See also Feeling good about yourself and Young people’s experiences of body image and eating disorders.

Last reviewed July 2017.

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