Significant differences between girls and boys have emerged from a major survey on young people’s body image.
The Dáil na nÓg Council survey found that the most negative influence on girls’ body image was comparing themselves to other girls.
Because of body image concerns, girls are up to twice as likely as boys to struggle to take part in activities such as swimming, sports, dating, and putting pictures of themselves on Facebook.
It also emerged that almost twice as many girls (52%) as boys (29%) exercised to control their weight.
Girls were also twice as likely as boys not to take enough exercise to stay healthy, while boys were more than twice as likely as girls to feel they were exercising more that was considered healthy.
Although positive body image was higher among boys at every age, the survey highlighted instances of excessive exercise and use of body-building supplements among some teenage boys.
The survey of 2,156 young people between the ages of 10 and 21 found that bullying had the most negative influence on boys’ body image.
Over 40% of all the young people surveyed were unhappy with their body image, with two out of three feeling under pressure to look good for other people.
The study, How We See It: Report of a Study on Young People’s Body Image, found that body image deteriorated rapidly over the course of adolescence, with 15-year-olds the least satisfied with how they looked.
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald, who launched the study, said it was a key recommendation from Dáil na nÓg 2010.
Young delegates said there was a lack of data on teenagers’ body image and decided it was an issue worth researching.
Ms Fitzgerald said international studies have stressed the serious social and health issues associated with negative body image.
“We must all be open to these concerns and we must all work to promote positive body image awareness, in particular in response to the ongoing policy debate surrounding bullying and youth mental health,” she said.
“We must look at those young girls who are not doing physical exercise, try and understand it a bit more, and deal with the issues that are preventing them from being involved.”
One of the authors of the report, Dr Angela O’Connell from University College Cork, said international literature suggested that body image was becoming more of a concern for young people and the implications of this were becoming more serious.
Dáil na nOg Council member Kaila Dunne, aged 17, from Corbally, Co Limerick, said that when she was in primary school all the girls in her class loved swimming but this changed when they became teenagers.
“When we got to secondary school, almost no one wanted to do the swimming class and every week girls had notes to get out of going swimming,” said Kaila, a sixth-year student at Gaelcholaiste Luimnigh.
“No one was comfortable wearing their swimming togs in front of other people in the class — everyone’s perception of themselves had changed and we were all a lot more self-conscious than when we were 12 years old”
Girls exercise to ‘stay thin’
By Evelyn Ring
More than one in five 15-year-old girls say they exercise to control their weight.
Even at the age of 12, girls are more than twice as likely as boys to exercise to stay thin rather than to stay healthy.
However, girls are also less likely to take part in physical activities aimed at making bodies to fit social ideals.
An extensive study carried out by the Dáil na nÓg Council warns that a focus on obesity when promoting activity among young girls, even though well intentioned, might turn out to be counterproductive.
On average, girls exercised on three or fewer days per week, whereas boys exercised on four or more days.
Up to four times as many girls as boys exercise to control their weight and more boys (72%) than girls (64%) exercise for enjoyment.
More girls (11%) than boys (8%) smoke as a form of weight control and more than half of girls (53%) compared with two in five boys (41%) put some or a lot of effort into their eating habits.
The report also shows dissatisfaction with body image is hitting hard in the mid-teens. The most marked decline in body image begins to appear at age 14, peaking at 15.
The study found that young people themselves are aware of the issues and are struggling to explain the problems they experience about body image.
The report recommends incorporating ‘body image’ into the mainstream Social, Personal and Health Education curriculum for all years.
Where necessary, outside experts could be brought in to talk tostudents, as well as people who had themselves suffered an eating disorder or bullying related to body image.
Recommendations made by the young people who completed the survey:
* A body-image awareness campaign to highlight the complex issues facing young people on how they feel about their bodies.
* Personal development programmes to help young people develop a more positive body image.
* Information on healthy eating, eating disorders and obesity.
* Making school sports less traditional, narrow and male-oriented.
* Helplines: Teenline Ireland: 1800 833 634; Parent Line: 1890 927 277; Bodywhys: 1890 200 444
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