Teen Girls, Media, & Body Image
Kellie Raydon, ND, MSOM
Helping Girls to Cope in a Media-Saturated World
As a practitioner for women and girls, I occasionally see teens and pre-teens who are empowered and resilient, and who seem to be immune to the toxic parts of our objectifying culture. More often, though, I see girls who are filled with angst and who are coping poorly with expectations they feel are unattainable. Sadly, much of their unhappiness is not about how their bodies are functioning, but about how their bodies appear to others. Girls in good health and with optimal weight are convinced they are too heavy. They complain about facial features they don’t like and can’t wait to correct. When I have the opportunity to speak with the mothers of these girls, I often find they are at a loss as to why their daughters are so insecure and in desperate need of others’ approval. They assure me that they have told their girls repeatedly that they are beautiful and perfectly okay the way they are, but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.
I share these mothers’ sense of helplessness, and I’ve sought to understand how to remedy the situation. As naturopathic doctors, we are trained to identify and treat the root cause of any disease. We also treat the whole person. But at this point in time we are called to do so much more. When it comes to teen and pre-teen girls, we need to address the culture in which they live and to set the best example we can for them. Moreover, we need to understand what girls and young women are up against so that we can learn how to better empower them and ourselves, and in turn help to heal the damaging aspects of our culture. By healing our culture, we can help people across the gender spectrum – not just females, but males as well.
Simply turn on the television or tune into social media, and you’re bound to see someone who has just had a makeover. And it’s nearly always a young woman ready and willing to follow the latest beauty trend. Current fashion magazines tell us that lip injections for women in their 20s are all the rage now, and many teen girls are hoping to follow suit. Botulinum toxin is also more popular than ever. The Los Angeles Times reports that, according to The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of injections of botulinum toxin for 19 to 34-year-olds increased by 87% between 2011 and 2016.1 It’s even more alarming that this procedure is marketed to young women and girls as a preventive measure, selling them on the idea that the sooner they paralyze those muscles, the sooner they can get a head start on preventing wrinkles from developing.
Teen girls often request these procedures because they want to look like the stars they emulate. In other cases, beauty treatments are marketed to girls by making them think that what’s perfectly normal is instead a pathology. For example, ads for prescription products sold in aesthetic med-spas to lengthen eyelashes ask potential consumers if they suffer from “hypotrichosis, or short eyelash syndrome.”2 In other words, girls with perfectly functional eyelashes, albeit short ones, are being made to believe they have a disease.
In addition to getting aesthetic procedures, females are far more likely than males to undergo cosmetic surgery,3 and younger and younger women and girls are being targeted more than ever, reinforcing the message that physical appearance is what matters most and that no measure is too extreme or too risky to be considered. Perhaps it’s no surprise, but plenty of parents are willing to provide their consent for these cosmetic surgeries, which can cost upwards of $10 000. In fact, in some circles it’s trendy for parents to offer cosmetic surgery as a graduation present. Other teenagers foot the surgery bill themselves, sometimes forgoing college. These surgeries are frequently marketed as necessary interventions to restore self-esteem and mental health.
Our billion-dollar fashion industry influences which physical characteristics girls want to change. For example, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Brazilian butt lifts saw a 28% increase from 2014 to 2015, as the procedure gained popularity among millennials. 4 Breast surgery now includes both saline and silicone implants. In addition, a new 20-minute procedure, known as “InstaBreasts” or “vacation breasts” is available, which involves the injection of saline solution into one’s breasts to increase breast size for 24 hours.
Apparently, no body part is off-limits. USA Today reports that doctors are seeing younger and younger women getting labiaplasty.5 This trend is likely heavily influenced by pornography. Viewing depictions of women without pubic hair has morphed into a desire to redesign the vulva. Thankfully, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists took a stand in their 2007 committee opinion,6 warning doctors about the dangers of this procedure due to the lack of data to support it and the potential complications.
Social media is a major factor driving young women and girls to spend so much time and money on their appearance in spite of the risks. Teen girls using social media buy into the idea that being seen is more important than ever. In their eyes, to borrow a line from Chris Rock’s movie Top Five, “If it isn’t on camera, it doesn’t exist.” Consequently, many girls have turned into Public Relations firms for themselves, carefully selecting their best photos, along with writing catchy captions to post to their “public.” Worse still, some feel they need to compete with the pornography their boyfriends view online by sexting nude photos of themselves, reinforcing the idea that girls exist primarily for the pleasure of males.
Unfortunately, girls are being misled into believing that happiness is a direct result of how they look. Yet, according to a study published in Psychological Medicine and reported in Psychology Today,7 cosmetic surgery isn’t making teenage girls any happier or healthier. Even if girls report satisfaction with the results of a particular procedure, they report an increase in anxiety and depression compared to girls who chose not to have cosmetic surgery. Furthermore, girls having cosmetic surgery are more likely to seek additional surgical procedures in the future. They are tricked into thinking that self-esteem can only be found and maintained by changing or correcting their physical appearance.
How We Can Help
As doctors, we need to be educating girls as well as their parents, because many girls are not capable of understanding the repercussions of their decisions. They need to understand the beauty and valuable function of their bodies in their natural state. A non-surgically-altered vulva is optimal for childbirth, for example, and breast implants can jeopardize breastfeeding. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of dermal fillers, and new products are arriving on the market constantly. Doctors have seen the way botulinum toxin is robbing young women of the opportunity to have a full range of expression. Many girls are so caught up in being as sexy as they can in the moment that they have lost perspective on the long- term consequences of their actions. We need to help them regain what they’ve lost.
As naturopathic physicians, we must support girls in learning how to love themselves the way they are. That’s why at the women’s clinic where I practice, we made the decision to not provide aesthetic medicine. We want to set a positive example for our female patients. We want our offices and exam rooms to be free of brochures for botulinum toxin and fillers. While waiting for a pap smear at our clinic, patients have access to body-affirming literature and relevant information about women’s health. We believe it is unethical to prey upon women and girls and profit from their insecurities about how they look. We are here to heal and support our patients rather than support an industry that works relentlessly to brainwash women and girls into believing they are not okay as they are.
We have made a brave choice, though I understand why many practitioners have not chosen to do the same. Naturopathic physicians often struggle financially, because they are saddled with student loans, mortgages, and the expense of raising families. In addition, we are not fully supported by the infrastructure available to conventional medical doctors. To thrive, or even just survive and pay mounting bills, many naturopathic doctors have resorted to providing aesthetic medicine to their patients.
Others doctors believe that by practicing aesthetic medicine, they are actually better serving their patients. My hope is that even practitioners who are proponents of aesthetic medicine will nonetheless decide not to provide this service to their patients. Even if we as practitioners make a personal decision to utilize aesthetic medicine, we can maintain integrity in our professional lives by not offering it to our patients. With so many med-spas in virtually every city, these aesthetic services are readily available to women and girls without our participation. In addition, patients seeking cosmetic surgery will likely find plenty of surgeons available to perform the latest operation trending on social media. We can choose to remain a united front, true to the tenets of naturopathic medicine.
Empowering Teen Girls from Within
Engaging in activism and educating others about what ails our society is vital now more than ever. We can all advocate for change by keeping our patients and peers informed about dangerous products and procedures. Yet, even as we do our best to change culture, it may not be enough to inoculate young women and girls from feelings of desperation and insecurity. We need to strengthen girls internally at every level as well. Only then can we help girls become immune to a culture that tells them they must constantly obsess about and seek to improve their appearance.
How we approach girls in order to best reach them can make a big difference in terms of results. We need to proceed with care and sensitivity when discussing the toxic parts of our culture. We need to approach girls in an authentically non-judgmental manner. This is especially important if we want them to feel comfortable disclosing personal information. When we are able to empathize with what girls face every day, it isn’t difficult to understand their plight.
We need to help girls and young women tap into their own inherent strength and wisdom. This process is made easier when girls learn how to take breaks from social media. As practitioners, we can take advantage of the precious time we have with our patients. In my practice, I often lead girls through a short meditation, allowing them to visualize what it’s like to nurture themselves the way they nurture others, love themselves unconditionally as they love others, and tune into their own sense of inner knowing, to help them envision a future based on much more than their looks. By helping girls get back to their center, even if it’s just while they are in my office, we are helping them to reclaim their own power.
Culture must change on multiple levels if we are to resolve the root cause of this pervasive problem. But rest assured, no matter how many negative images young women and girls are bombarded with each and every day, they can remember who they are. They can discover a strong sense of purpose that transcends ordinary survival goals and the need for outer approval, because who they really are at their core is more powerful and beautiful than they may realize. We can help them reclaim their strength, and in so doing, reclaim their lives.
- Strugatz R. Are the Kardashians, millennials seeking to look young causing cosmetic procedures boom? March 31, 2017. LA Times Web site. http://www.latimes.com/fashion/la-ig-wwd-cosmetic-procedures-kardashian-driven-millennial-led-20170331-story.html. Accessed May 15, 2017.
- Walker R. Eyelash of the Beholder. July 31, 2009. NY Times Web site. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02fob-consumed-t.html. Accessed May 15, 2017.
- The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. 2016 Cosmetic Surgery National Data Bank Statistics. ASAPS Web site. https://www.surgery.org/media/statistics. Accessed May 10, 2017.
- Azad K. Recovering from a Brazilian butt lift. May 12, 2016. American Society of Plastic Surgeons Web site. https://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/blog/recovering-from-a-brazilian-butt-lift. Accessed May 15, 2017.
- USA Today. Increase in labiaplasty as women strive for ‘normal’ look. March 2, 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/03/02/increase-labiaplasty-women-strive-normal-vaginas-what-does-normal-vagina-look-like-surgery/98629662/. Accessed May 10, 2017.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG Committee Opinion. Vaginal “Rejuvenation” and Cosmetic Vaginal Procedures. September 2007. ACOG Web site. http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Gynecologic-Practice/Vaginal-Rejuvenation-and-Cosmetic-Vaginal-Procedures. Accessed May 15, 2017.
- Ehrenfeld T. Plastic Surgery Doesn’t Boost Self-Esteem. December 10, 2012. Psychology Today Web site. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/open-gently/201212/plastic-surgery-doesnt-boost-self-esteem. Accessed May 10, 2017.
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Kellie Raydon, ND, MSOM, earned a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine and a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine from the National University of Natural Medicine. Her master’s thesis focused on the Adolescent Development of Girls, and she has extensive experience in mentoring teenage girls in the community, which is one of her greatest passions. Dr Raydon completed a 2-year residency under Dr Tori Hudson in Integrative Women’s Health. She currently practices at A Woman’s Time in Portland, OR. Dr Raydon uses a multidisciplinary approach tailored to the individual, which includes lifestyle counseling, Chinese and western botanical medicine, acupuncture, and targeted amino acid and nutrient supplementation.