The Risks of a Negative Self-Image

Whether we like it or not, we live in an image-obsessed society. We are inundated with celebrity and media ideals that heavily influence many individuals to strive to attain an unrealistic image and body ideal. This can hurt anyone's self-perception and it can be considerably damaging to teenagers and adolescents, who are still growing. In addition, it may influence them to engage in risk behaviors.

It can be normal for teens to compare themselves to others as they work on arriving at their own unique identities. However, in the area of body image this can take the form of comparing themselves to unrealistic media images.

Children's mental health experts at Bradley Hospital say it is helpful to discuss with teens the ways in which media images are unrealistic due to airbrushing and computerized alterations. It is also important to encourage teens to embrace their unique qualities. Recognizing that there is no one ideal of physical attractiveness helps teens build self confidence.

There is no one specific reason for why an individual develops a negative self-image. It varies by individual and there are usually a number of factors working in combination with one another.

General reasons that could contribute to self-image issues

  • Genetic vulnerabilities: Individuals who are genetically predisposed to certain psychiatric disturbances such as depression and anxiety disorders may be at greater risk.

  • Associations with other conditions: Features of clinical depression include feelings of worthlessness, guilt, failure and hopelessness. Similarly, individuals with anxiety disorders may struggle with excessive worries about what others think, along with perfectionism. When these disorders are treated, some of these self-image problems may abate. Individuals with body image problems may also be more likely to develop co-occurring depressive and anxiety disorders, and, conversely, those with a personal or family history of mood and anxiety disorders may be at a greater risk of developing body-image related disorders such as eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder.

  • Media and peer culture influence: There has been a great deal written about the negative influence of the media and peer culture on vulnerable teens. These constant flashbulb images of "perfection" can make individuals believe that this unrealistic image is attainable and the norm. However, this exposure by itself is probably not enough to cause a serious psychiatric disorder, since most teens are exposed to media and peer influences but do not develop serious disorders.

  • Bullying: Teens who are bullied or picked on become more vulnerable to internalizing what they are hearing, and in turn, feel badly about themselves.

  • Past Abuse: A history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, within or outside of the family, can contribute to feelings of low self-worth.

Self Image and Peer Pressure

Teenagers who suffer from a poor self-image are more vulnerable to peer pressure, and this can result in risk behaviors such as substance abuse.

If a teen feels good about him or herself and is secure in his or her values it can be easier to stand up to peer pressure and say 'No, that's not for me,' without being unduly worried about rejection.

It is often self-confident teenagers, the ones who do not give into peer pressure, that are most enthusiastically accepted by their peers. This is something that individuals with low self-esteem may not realize.

It is often the self-confident teens who say 'no' who are the ones other teens want to follow. Teens who think negatively about themselves may feel the only way to gain acceptance is to follow peers into negative activities.