5 Theories Explaining Why Low Self-Esteem is a Teen Epidemic

by Lex Ellenthal

Everyone talks about how teen girls have rough. People just assume that puberty brings about a drop in self-esteem. Why is it that girl’s are expected to and often endure such insecurities about their body image? Here are some theories as to why.

Theory #1: Photoshopped images of models and celebrities in magazines and advertising!

This theory is backed by Tina Fey in her book, Bossypants. To quote Fey, “I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

Yikes. So, clearly, Tina Fey feels strongly that this theory is THE theory. I’m not so convinced, though. It’s widely known that those women are a far cry from average looking, and are even still photoshopped to “enhance” their appearances. Moreover, with more baby steps being made that feel like leaps and bounds, like the Dove Real Beauty campaign and Aerie’s anti-Photoshop campaign , and online support communities growing in number, women seem to have nearly constant reminders that even Beyoncé and JLo don’t look like Beyoncé and JLo.

Theory #2: The amount of time we youths funnel into social media!

Here, we have a Slate article that says that a study concluded social media to be a major factor in girls’ self-esteem. While I don’t discount that it is beyond irritating when that girl you’ve had a rivalry with for years gets more likes on her new profile picture than you do on yours, this hardly seems to be enough motivation to be ‘good enough’ that it could cause a severe drop in self-esteem and/or disordered eating. According to this article, more teens are getting plastic surgery now than ever before (which I personally think might be due to an increased population and the gradual normalization of cosmetic surgery by celebrities) and some of them are saying it’s because they don’t like their selfies. I don’t know about you, but that just sounds ridiculous to me.

An excerpt from the article: “…researchers from Florida State University detected a link between time spent on Facebook and disordered eating patterns. They asked 960 female college students to complete a test assessing their relationship to food and weight, as well as how often they logged onto Facebook. After an association emerged between disordered eating habits and social media use, the team then swept 84 of the women into an additional experiment. Half of the participants spent 20 minutes on Facebook before retaking the food survey; the other half used that 20 minutes to research ocelots… Again, women who had been exposed to the idealized images of themselves and their friends demonstrated more disordered thought-processes around snacking, weight, and exercise than the women who looked at fuzzy cats.”

Theory #3: Our relationships, particularly with our parents, are failing…

The idea behind this one is that our self-esteem starts plummeting around puberty, a time when we are angst-y and hormonal. A lot of parents don’t know how to deal with how easily their kid is now aggravated and embarrassed, and as a result, the relationships suffer. Since ‘tweens’ are young enough that their relationships with their parents are still critical to them, this causes their self-esteem to drop. This seems legitimate enough, but it doesn’t answer for the disparity between boys’ and girls’ self-esteems at that age. Even in the article it is said that “[t]eenage girls encounter more “stressors” in life, especially in their personal relationships, and react more strongly than boys to these pressures.” This offers no explanation for why girls might be reacting more strongly. So, while this theory may be a factor in girls having lowered self-esteem, it can hardly even count as a theory because it only half-explains itself.

Theory #4: Holy smokes, we’re overloaded with stress!

This one is relatively legitimate. A study showed that teenagers today are under the same stress levels as old-timey mental patients. Teens of all genders have seen a spike in diagnoses of mental illnesses as well as hospitalizations. Once, again, though, we don’t have an explanation of why girls are affected far more than boys. Dr. Stoppler of medicinenet.com say that “[s]tress and self-esteem can be related because stress may worsen the symptoms of almost all medical and emotional conditions.” Dr. Stoppler also says “[w]hen the body is physically and emotionally healthy, it is much easier to live with stress. I believe that low self-esteem compromises our emotional readiness to handle the challenges that invariably come with daily living and therefore increases our experience of stress.” Dr. Stoppler doesn’t have an explanation for why girls are disproportionately affected by stressors, though, so Dr. Stoppler can come back when they know what they’re talking about. 

My theory: It’s a medley of reasons!

It’s a recipe. Preheat the oven to 425º and mix all the ingredients together in a bowl; a pinch of stress, a dash of poor relationships, a teaspoon of social media and just a wee bit of photoshopped models plus a heaping helping of patriarchal beauty standards and a heavy emphasis on female appearance as correlated to female worth equals, like, zero self-esteem. 

So, it doesn’t seem accurate to boil it all down to one singular causal factor. Instead, there are a ton of reasons why young girls are eating less and less or wishing they had another body besides their own. Girls should be educated on why it is that they feel the way they do and understand that it has nothing to do with them, but a variety of external factors plaguing their tweenhood. Regardless, more action needs to be taken.

Image courtesy of Tinablogsalot.

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