Pointless pursuit of perfection is consuming teens

A FAMILIAR conversation in any house with a young male today would be that of body image. While self-improvement is always a desirable pursuit, something pathological has crept into the teenage world where they have become consumed with attaining the perfect body. I hear it so often in my clinic; parents describing their children as perfectionists.

Body image is simply a construct and like everything we construct it will go in and out of fashion

They painfully delineate the torture the child is imposing on themselves in the pursuit of that; perfect exam, perfect relationship, perfect life and now; perfect body. And perfectionism is a pursuit that will ultimately end in dejection and disappointment because there is no perfect.

I have been struck over the last number of years, working in the therapeutic setting and in schools, hearing the desire that young men have to achieve the perfect body. Traditionally, this is something that women have always had to labour with but now it has crossed genders and infiltrated the world of the young adult male. Of course social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are a major reason why there has been such a sudden rise in this modern phenomenon but they are only part of the story. We have to ask ourselves, where are they receiving the messages that a particular body type is desirable?

Social media, with its reliance on images is certainly a cause but maybe it’s an easy target, I think there are wider issues here. If we actually stop and look around us and view the messages our children are receiving we can clearly see why they hold the belief they must look a certain way.

The reason why I am writing about this is because I hear it so often in my clinic, teenage boys and girls describing their absolute hatred of their own body. It is something I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with; hearing these beautiful young children, with their whole lives ahead of them speak about themselves in such hostile and negative ways just because they don’t have a six-pack or a certain body fat index.

We must, as the policymakers, teachers and parents work to prevent our children from receiving such damaging messages about body image. We must also work with them to help them understand that certain body types are not healthy and often take extremely undesirable methods to achieve and some are not even real — they have been photoshopped. And our children are falling prey to such images. We need to start educating them about body image and self esteem.

Body image develops during the formative years and is influenced by family and culture. That is why parents must work vigilantly with their children to debunk the ubiquitous bombardment of false body images they receive in the media. Everywhere you look we are surrounded with hyper fit buff young males. Why is that? Because there is money to be made, and our children need to be informed on that fact.

As parents, we must explain the nature of advertising versus reality, because the representation of men in the media has become increasingly muscular and unrealistic and this is placing huge pressure on children to look a certain way. While this may seem like something that is relatively benign there has been a significant shift in the demographic of needle users in this country. I had a conversation with the head of the Merchants Quay needle exchange in Dublin last year and he outlined very clearly what this new demographic points towards.

Teenagers are now using such a service to get clean needles so that they can safely inject steroids into their bodies. We have far too many tragic examples of the consequences of this practice to turn a blind eye. A new trend is teenagers transiently using steroids before they head off on a summer holiday to get in shape. Their lack of knowledge and experience with these heavy anabolic steroids is one of the main reasons why we have a litany of so many terrible and tragic stories in our society.

Often big muscles are associated with a strong healthy body. But the irony can be that the methods used to attain such a big physique can be anything but healthy. Body image can destroy a young man’s self-esteem. It is vitally important that we help our children navigate the plethora of messages they are receiving.

I find myself talking more and more to teenagers about this issue in the classroom. I try to explain to them about the nature of social construction and how body image is simply a construct and like everything we construct it will go in and out of fashion. I show them different body types that were in fashion at one point and are no longer, I can see the pressure lifting off them as they become aware of the spell they have been under and I leave them with this question, do you want to be a slave to the advertisers who are simply after your money?

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