Eating, weight and body image disorders are affecting 1 in 4 adolescents in the Hunter, new study shows

MORE than a quarter of Hunter adolescents believe they have a “current and significant problem” with their body image, world-first research shows.

Early results from a longitudinal study into the prevalence of eating, weight and body image disorders in Australia have identified the “drive for muscularity” is becoming increasingly problematic for young men, with a higher-than-expected prevalence of steroid use in boys aged 12-to-19.

Close to 5000 students from Newcastle and the Hunter have participated in the EveryBODY study, which found “fitsperation” posts on social media were playing a role in shaping student’s perceptions of body image, and binge-eating and over-eating disorders were becoming more common.

But with more than one-in-four adolescents having body image problems, and one-in-four children aged two-to-17 overweight or obese in Australia, there has never been a bigger gap between their practically impossible ideals and their reality, lead researcher Deborah Mitchison, of Macquarie University, said.

Body of work: Dr Deborah Mitchison, from the Centre for Emotional Health in the department of psychology at Macquarie University, lead the study.

Body of work: Dr Deborah Mitchison, from the Centre for Emotional Health in the department of psychology at Macquarie University, lead the study.

“What I find most fascinating is looking at the difference between obesity, which we know is rising in kids, and these ideals – this drive for muscularity in boys, and this drive for thinness, but with a toned body, in females,” Dr Mitchison said.

“At the moment there is a lot of guesswork with body image programs, and they have not been overly successful. If we have evidence that specific risk factors, like certain behaviour on social media, or being bullied, can lead to eating disorders, it should help us reduce the likelihood of kids developing these issues.”

Of the 13 schools participating in the three-year EveryBODY study, 12 are from the Hunter Region.

The first of three annual surveys was conducted in 2017, which found 26 per cent of students believed they had a problem with body image, and that both boys and girls shared these concerns.

“Research and the media, and clinicians and health professionals, have all contributed to this stereotype that eating disorders and body image are the domain of young girls,” Dr Mitchison said.

“Boys have really been neglected. But is it clear that the boys are suffering too. Their ideals are different to what girls aspire to be – for them it is more about attaining a really muscular body.

“But the fact it’s not seen as a problem by society so much, means that it can even be encouraged.”

Dr Mitchison said when boys went to the gym, talked about “bulking” and “shredding” and engaged in extreme dietary behaviours, it was either encouraged by the people around them – because it seemed healthy, or it was just ignored and not identified for what it was – in some cases, a severe body image problem.

“That is when it is interfering with academic or social functioning, or they are getting really distressed when they get injured and they can’t go to the gym,” she said.

“A lot of guys out there with muscularity body image problems see themselves as being scrawnier and thinner than they really are. Almost like a reverse anorexia.”

More than half of students said they had experienced a body image problem in their lifetime, but less than five per cent had received help for it.

“We know through the Mission Australia youth reports that body image is always one of the top three concerns of adolescents,” Dr Mitchison said. “But for one-in-four to think they personally have a problem with it is really quite shocking.”

Dr Mitchison, working within Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, said the study made it clear there were still problems with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, but binge-eating disorders and bulimia nervosa appeared to be becoming more common.

“What we’re finding is there is this kind of nexus between eating, body image and obesity, and it is definitely affecting our kids,” she said. “The ideals are getting more extreme for both girls and for boys. Boys want to be muscular, with 0 per cent of fat. Girls also want to be 0 per cent fat, but with a toned body.

“When I was a teenager, the ideal was just to be thin. Now it’s about having that muscular tone. So we are looking at this drive for leanness, and you can see it playing out on social media a lot, with “fitsperation” on Instagram and Facebook.

“They are promoting this unrealistic body type, which can lead to a lot of body image problems and eating disorder behaviours.”

Penny Curran-Peters, deputy principal at Hunter Valley Grammar, said the detailed feedback the school received from the first survey would help them plan for the future emotional and psychological needs of their students.

She was not surprised that one-in-four students struggled with body image.

“I think that is lived out in the daily work of most schools,” she said. “We recently held a screening of the movie Embrace, but we wanted to balance that out with something for the young men too, because they are experiencing very similar thoughts and ideas. But that is much harder to find.”

Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues can call the Butterfly Foundation’s helpline on 1800 33 4673, or for urgent help, Lifeline 13 11 14.

Dr Mitchison said given 80-to-90 per cent of students used and posted images to social media regularly, any intervention probably needed to lean towards improving their “literacy” in understanding how photos are edited, and how the subjects pose at the most flattering angles, as looks could be deceiving.

“It will be more about educating kids about the kinds of images they are seeing, and getting them to understand that those images are not necessarily reflecting reality, as well as trying to stop them comparing themselves to other images all the time.”

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