What 1600 young people told us about their body image
The results from the new Butterfly Body Kind Youth Survey are in, and they’re concerning. More than 1600 young people aged 12-18 took part in the survey, with at least half saying they were dissatisfied with their bodies. About one in three kids say they’re completely dissatisfied with the way that they look.
“The problem is there’s a real cost to young people’s body dissatisfaction,” says Helen Bird, Butterfly’s Education Manager. “A significant number limit their involvement in everyday activities like sports, going to the beach, hanging out with their friends, or going clothes shopping. It’s also impacting their learning. Something like 50% of young people say that their body image has stopped them from putting their hands up in class, focusing on their schoolwork and, for some, even going to school.”
In the latest episode of Let’s Talk, our host Sam Ikin talks to Helen, mental health counsellor Stella Ladikos and social worker AJ Williams-Tchen who all work closely with young people and listen to their concerns. He also chats with two high school students who aren’t surprised by the survey results, but who make it quite clear that adults and institutions need to be doing a lot more to support them.
Sam Ikin 00:08
We have some new figures from a national survey of children aged 12 to 18, about the impact of the body image concerns are having on them. And the results are concerning to say the least.
Helen Bird 00:20
Body dissatisfaction and body image concerns are exceptionally high in young Australians.
Stella Ladikos 00:27
I cannot stress enough how much of this stuff is affecting young people every single day.
I was just a lot more concerned about how I looked and I didn’t want to focus on schooling as much.
AJ Williams-Tchen 00:41
One of the young boys I was working with, wants to do dancing, and he is in a larger body and he goes, I don’t mind dancing by myself, but I don’t want to go to one of the classes I really want to go to because I think people will laugh and make fun of me.
Sam Ikin 00:58
This is Butterfly: Let’s Talk. I’m Sam Ikin. The survey we’re talking about is Butterfly’s Body Kind Youth Survey. It was designed by experts and more than 1600 kids from all around Australia from all walks of life responded clearly, that body image is a huge issue for them. And it really impacts on their lives.
Helen Bird 01:20
We had something like almost half of our sample saying that they felt dissatisfied with the way that they looked. And nearly one in three were mostly or completely dissatisfied.
Sam Ikin 01:32
That’s Helen Bird, Education Manager from Butterfly Foundation, and the brains behind this year’s Body Kind Youth Survey.
Helen Bird 01:40
We had 90% say that they had some level of concern about their body image. And with one in three being very or extremely concerned. The findings also show that there’s a real cost to young people’s body dissatisfaction with a significant number sort of limiting their involvement in everyday activities such as their sports, going to the beach, hanging out with their friends, going clothes shopping. But it’s also really interestingly impacting on their learning. We had something like 50% of young people saying that their body image had stopped them to some extent putting their hands up in class focusing on their schoolwork and for some even going to school.
Sam Ikin 02:22
That’s staggering. Were there any other surprising stats that came up?
Helen Bird 02:26
Well, inevitably, of course, we asked young people about their social media use. Six in 10 said that they were spending more time on social media than they would like. But worryingly, 50% of them said that social media made them feel dissatisfied with how their body looked.
Sam Ikin 02:43
Prior to Butterfly’s Body Kind Youth Survey, there was no national data on body image experiences of young people in this age group that is 12 to 18. We’ll hear from some experts in just a moment. But first, I think we should talk to some actual young people about it. Jess and Krystal go to the same high school in Sydney.
It was mainly in my younger years of high school, but like 13, 14 is when I started having a bit of concerns of my body image.
Sam Ikin 03:09
Did that affect your schooling or how you behaved or anything like that?
Yeah, no, it definitely affected how I behaved like, the clothes I’d wear and like how I’d acted. I’d act like, a lot more shy in front of people, I guess.
Sam Ikin 03:23
So Jess, from the survey, was there anything that jumped out that you thought was remarkable?
Yeah, it’s actually funny because I was reading the survey and that exact fact stood out to me. It was around 50% of young people said that body image stopped them from some extent from going to school and focusing on their schoolwork. Like that, that one really upset me, because it kind of just shows us how body image has such a negative effect on your academics and what you do.
Sam Ikin 03:55
But neither of you seem very surprised about these results.
I don’t think there was anything surprising about the results. I think we all know that body image is a big concern among young people now. But it is just disappointing that these other results like I wish they weren’t.
Kind of the same opinion. Nothing really surprised me it was all like you would expect it. And that’s kind of sad. It’s really sad that I you could expect all of those answers. It wasn’t really surprising.
Stella Ladikos 04:26
I cannot stress enough how much this stuff is affecting young people every single day. Particularly with how involved young people are with social media.
Sam Ikin 04:39
Stella Ladikos is a mental health trainer and a counsellor who also works with Butterfly as a sessional presenter.
Stella Ladikos 04:46
What I love doing is hearing from the young people what they actually think about body image, how they think certain certain parts of society like media, social media, for example, how it directly influences It impacts their body image. So it’s often this kind of like two way dialogue that we have with young people. Sometimes you talk about social media as like, oh, yeah, social media is ruining the lives of young people. And whilst I wouldn’t say that that statement is completely accurate, because there are some really positive sides of social media, in my experience, a lot of young people are being negatively impacted on by what’s being posted on social media, what’s being shared, and just growing up in this diet culture in this appearance, obsessed culture.
Helen Bird 05:34
They really loudly, clearly told us that they wanted social media companies to take more responsibility and to do more to support them. So that things like they were asking for, you know, more diversification in body and beauty ideals, and they want social media platforms to have more controls in place around that promoting dieting and weight loss, and kind of inaccurate health information.
Social media is definitely making this problem a lot worse.
Sam Ikin 06:02
Yeah. How’s it doing that?
They’re, they’re portraying these ideal body types. And I do like beauty standards with all these filters, and Photoshop and all that. And they only like show the best version of people. They don’t show who they really are.
Sam Ikin 06:21
Yeah, it’s pretty. It’s pretty fake, isn’t it? None of it’s real. So what do you, like, what sort of social media do you use? Do you do see this kind of thing?
I do have social media but… I usually use Instagram the most, I guess, but I usually don’t see that type of content, because I only follow things that I like, and I know won’t make me feel bad about my body.
Go mainly use Tik Tok but Tik Tok really gives you what you want to see, I feel like. So kind of the same as Crystal, I feel like it’s all been filtered out the stuff that I wouldn’t usually want to say it’s been filtered out. So it’s all pretty positive on my side.
Sam Ikin 07:04
That’s great. How is it filtered out? Is that something that you’ve had to do?
Well, I think the algorithm picks up what you want to look at. But also if I see something I don’t like, you can choose like, I’m not interested in this, or I don’t want to see any of this.
Sam Ikin 07:18
For most of us, it’s not realistic to think that we can shelter our children from social media. It’s become such an ingrained part of the world that we live in, like it or not, they’re going to be affected by it in one way or another. Now, if you’re thinking, I’ll look, everybody has some sort of body image concerns. It’s pretty normal when you’re developing. That’s very true. But remember that you probably grew up before the incredibly intense influence of social media, where opportunities to compare your body with so called ideal bodies are off the charts. But an encouraging point to come from this survey was that many kids are at least somewhat aware of the distress that it can cause. And they want to see changes in the way that social media presents bodied ideals and beauty standards, as well as stricter guidelines around harmful content.
Helen Bird 08:06
We asked them about their social media literacy skills. So things like taking a break, unfollowing thing pages or content that made them feel bad, and posting authentically and taking action against online bullying. Few of them really are engaging in social media strategies. So the 17 year 18 year olds are perhaps a little bit better at this but certainly the younger ones, 12 year olds, who are probably new to social media, were the least likely to be using social media literacy skills. So this really points to the need to kind of introduce those strategies early. Hopefully, before they start using these platforms.
Stella Ladikos 08:45
When I was going through probably the most difficult time I’ve ever been through with my body image and my eating and exercise, when I actually went and sought professional help, the first thing they got me to do was go through my Instagram because that was like a really triggering place for me at that point in time. And it was right they were right my whole Instagram feed were models, celebrities, influencers that all looks the same dress the same posted like, you know, the half naked photo. So of course, when you see that stuff constantly, you’re not going to feel great about yourself.
Sam Ikin 09:20
Two thirds of young people who responded said that they never take a break from social media because it’s affecting how they felt about their bodies, and half said that they never or rarely unfollow accounts that make them feel negative about their bodies. So we have got a lot of work to do around social media literacy. Another major driver of negative body image is appearance based teasing, and what we’ve talked about the appearance based teasing in previous episodes, let’s note that an overwhelming proportion of young people aged 12 to 18 say they have experienced it and that it mostly happens at school, and that it’s really quite damaging to their self worth and their self esteem.
Helen Bird 10:00
The other major statistic that I’d probably want to highlight is that 70% had said that they experienced a peak appearance based teasing. And the overwhelming majority of that occurred at school was a particular issue for our gender diverse and LGBTQIA+ youth.
Sam Ikin 10:19
According to Stella, school is not the only place where kids are developing a negative body image.
Stella Ladikos 10:25
One of the most common and it’s also the saddest one is I’ll often have young people come up to me after the presentation, and say something like, my parents keep telling me that I’m fat, and need to lose weight or my parents, I know they love me, but they’re really making me feel bad about myself. They’re buying clothes that are too small, they’re saying, I need to go on a diet, then, you know, all this sort of stuff and they come up to me and ask, what do I do? And that’s, as you can imagine, that’s it’s extremely difficult, because there are so many young people out there that okay, yeah, they might come to school, and they might sit in one of our presentations and go, yeah, I’m gonna love and accept myself the way that I am and who cares about diet culture, and I’m going to be, you know, focused on my health, love the way that I look, which is all well and good, but then they go home, and they’re in an environment where it’s just so toxic. And that, honestly, Sam, I find is so challenging, because we’re a presenter, you know, we’re with them for an hour if that. It’s hard that it’s so difficult to do anything in that situation. Because I mean, I wish every young person that came up to me and share that with me, I wish I could sit their parents down and have a talk with them. But I think young people in those situations, it’s one of the most common things that they’re the people around them are quite negative, quite toxic, and really enforcing what you just mentioned earlier, Sam, around appearance is everything and if you don’t hit certain standards, you’re not worthy, you’re not good enough, you’re not valid. And that’s what I hear a lot of young people struggling with, and it’s coming from their parents, it’s coming from their siblings, it’s coming from their friends. And that’s a really difficult thing.
Sam Ikin 12:29
Low body esteem is really uncomfortable in the moment, but it has serious flow on consequences for life outcomes. It can negatively impact a young person’s future mental and physical health, their career, their relationships, their ability to connect socially with other people, it can affect almost every aspect of somebody’s life.
AJ Williams-Tchen 12:48
So I predominantly work with Aboriginal kids that have had suicide attempts or engage in non suicidal self injury, I am starting to see a lot more kids turning up with disordered eating patterns as well.
Sam Ikin 12:58
This is AJ Williams Chen. He’s a registered nurse, social worker and an accredited mental health worker. When I told him about some of the survey results, he found them concerning but not surprising.
AJ Williams-Tchen 13:10
We know that adolescent mental health is actually quite higher than what we presume. And when we’re talking about mental illness, in general, we are talking about everything, or I’m talking about everything from ongoing anxiousness to anxiety, all the way through to all the other disorders exist, including actually being diagnosed with an eating disorder. So I’m not surprised that, one, mental health is high, but also that relation to body image is actually also high. In that particular age group. The kids that I work with the young women, I still often pressured to feel thin, but still remained some sort of curvy kind of shape of a body. Young men often report they want to be tall, thin and muscular. Again, I think they’re picking him up from that from the ideal media portrayals of what people should be looking like. But they also say to me things, like, they’re also looking at role models that they might have. So if they’ve got a role model in football, what’s that sporting person look like? Or what’s that actor look like? Or what’s that musician look like? And because they’re seeing these people, out up front, in the in the media, on newspaper, on magazines on, or basically social media at all, this is the image of they’re starting to get and they’re going. I don’t look like this. How can I start start to look like this? So I’m seeing them in sometimes the early stages when they’re actually just looking at it. I know what I am at the moment, and I thought I was comfortable, but now I’m seeing what I could be or should be. How do I actually get to there.
Stella Ladikos 15:01
I have noticed, though, when I go and speak to all boys schools, it’s a very different experience to anything else that I do with Butterfly, because you know, if you think about it historically, all this stuff that we talk about body image, eating disorders, diet, exercise has very much been thought off as being something that only pertains to or affects women. It’s, you know, and when you look at historically, as well, the conversations, the marketing, the advertising, all the stuff that’s been going on in this space historically has been centred around those who identify as female. So going up to all boys schools, I find it really interesting, because there’s often that air of we don’t need to hear this, like, Why have they booked in a chat about body image? And sometimes I don’t think young guys a very, very quick to, you know, understand, okay, this is really relevant because, yeah, okay, I’m not so concerned about some things that we that we were speaking about in the presentation, but I am concerned about getting big and muscley, and going to the gym, and steroids and all this stuff. And it’s like, well, that’s, that’s your body image darling, like, that’s the same kind of thing we’re talking about here.
AJ Williams-Tchen 16:26
Boys say they do not really looking at each other in the bathroom, but they get can’t help notice when they get changed and stuff, you know, they’re taller, they’re shorter, they’re hairier, they’re not exactly where they might be in their puberty cycle as well. And they start to become quite self conscious about that. I also talking about personal factors, like like low self esteem, depression is another one. When they start to feel down, they actually look at their bodies that actually go this and it kind of justifies to themselves, why I might be depressed. I would also say to the appearance of bullying is something that also has appeared. And I think with a lot of the kids that I work with in a clinical setting, I’d reckon about 90% of them will have some sort of appearance bullying, discussion with me. And it’s not just with other students at school, that can also be with some of the teachers making comments as well.
Sam Ikin 17:32
There’s a significant cost for body dissatisfaction in young people. It can cause them to limit their involvement in sport, social activities, schoolwork, and speaking up about what matters to them.
AJ Williams-Tchen 17:45
One of the young boys I was working with, wants to do dancing, and he is in a larger body. And he goes, I don’t mind dancing by myself, but I don’t want to go to one of the classes that I really want to go to, because I think people will laugh and make fun of me. So that’s then prevented him from actually doing something that he really wants to do. And he used to do dancing when he was younger as well, that you wanted to go back into it but he goes, I don’t think I’d be accepted in my body shape. And I’m saying my question to him was accepted by who? Or other people around you. And I think it was a bit of both, if that makes sense.
Sam Ikin 18:25
The majority of young people want schools to do more to stop appearance based teasing from happening. And they want more resources available for students who are struggling with their body image.
I think it’s really hard like with the legal system, and with schooling and stuff to implement, things that can actually make a difference, because people have already made up their minds on what they like and what they don’t like. They always want to do something that will make them feel better about themselves. But I guess the main thing is, yes, starting education from a younger age about, you know, how everyone is different and everyone looks different, and that’s okay, and that’s a good thing, and having more counselling options and more, being stricter with them with bullying in that.
Sam Ikin 19:12
Do you think that people who are who would, the bullies themselves, do you think that if they knew that how big a difference that’s going to make on someone’s life that they’d stop?
I think they already know. And I think they just don’t care. But I think if they were educated about it, way earlier, before they started acting like this, it could make a difference.
Helen Bird 19:29
Unsurprisingly, the majority couldn’t remember receiving any body image education during their primary school years and only about a third during their secondary school years. But 80% said that they wanted schools to do more. So they were asking for more supports more resources that are trained staff, and of course for schools to take action against that appearance, teasing and bullying. In terms of our educators, it’s clear that we need to start our prevention efforts early so we can stop these issues from developing and that it’s relevant for all students in all bodies. But we really do need to make sure that the needs of LGBTQIA+ youth and gender diverse youth are really considered making sure that schools are environments where all bodies are treated with kindness and respect, and that those students particularly are linked in to supports. And we young people also telling us that they wanted to hear body image education as part of the curriculum, and that they wanted to hear from other young people that had overcome body image struggles, or other young people genuinely. So I think there’s a real opportunity here for young people to role model schools to look for opportunities for young people to role model. And for peer led body image education programs.
Stella Ladikos 20:45
I definitely think all boys schools is an area that we could be tapping into a little bit more, and I’d love to speak to more boys groups, because you know, as you probably know, this, the stats around body image issues and eating disorders in young men is peaking, it’s going up exponentially, right. So I think it would be great to get out to more of those kinds of cultures or communities. But honestly, that because because this stuff, affects and relates to everyone like this, this issue of body image, the way that we feel about ourselves, our diet choices, our exercise choices, it’s not exclusive to any one group, or anyone culture, anyone age or gender.
Helen Bird 21:08
So in terms of what parents can do, obviously, we want them to be aware of the increased risk of body dissatisfaction for gender diverse, and LGBTQIA+ youth. We really would love parents to empower their children with social media literacy strategies, so that they can source and identify the really helpful stuff, and filter out the harmful body image content and the health misinformation. And like schools, we would love parents to instigate a zero tolerance to appearance based teasing in the home, because after schools, the home was the next most frequently indicated place for appearance, teasing, more so than social media.
Sam Ikin 21:40
One of the most important takeaways from this survey for young people who feel like withdrawing from things that otherwise be doing and want to do, because they’re not happy with their bodies, is that they’re not alone. I’ve put a link to the survey in the show notes and you can see for yourself, there are lots of young people who are in the same boat. In fact, it’s the norm rather than the exception.
AJ Williams-Tchen 22:49
Being an adolescent isn’t an easy thing to start off with, we need to realise that. The way that were, or the way that they’re expected to be making his life long decisions, especially in years in years, like 10, year 11, and 12, for stuff like University, and even first year of universities. There’s a lot of pressure already there. What they don’t need is pressure on what I look like and, and it’s not like just not how I look but when you ask me that question, like, oh, you say that statement, you’re actually trying to make me justify why I look like this. And why I look like this is sometimes hard, because it’s made up of genetics is made up of how I care about myself and my skin and a whole lot of stuff. But it’s about giving people really good positive self esteem and empowerment, to be the person that they are not the person that you you’re is someone else’s ideal, or an ideal of a person that they’re not if that makes sense.
Helen Bird 24:01
We have a really clear call to action at Butterfly, and that’s around being kinder to our bodies. So practising body kindness. So that’s the way we speak about our body, the way we feel and nourish our body, the way we practice self compassion, and the way we move our body that all matters. And so, being kinder to our bodies can really help us in terms of our physical and emotional health and help us to kind of get through life and feel that we can be. And again, in our in our survey, we were told that six in 10 Young people said that they wouldn’t reach out to someone if they weren’t feeling good in their body. So you know, another key aspect of being kind to our bodies is if you’re struggling to try and reach out for help, and we know that’s pretty scary for lots of young people, but there are people in their lives so services people at school that can support them with that.
AJ Williams-Tchen 24:58
I actually just kind of want them to be able to find someone that they can talk to about these issues without feeling embarrassed, if that makes sense, and realising that a lot of the adults that you talk to have actually already been adolescents before. So that’s a good start. They have actually experienced some of this stuff before, maybe not exactly what you’re experiencing right now, but they’ve got a pretty good idea how the body actually changes and works. That talking about body image isn’t shouldn’t be stigmatising or shouldn’t be a bad thing as well.
I think talking to my friends will help because if you surround yourself with a good group of people, they’re always there to support you and they’re always going to try to make you feel better about yourself. And you know, let you know that it’s okay. Whatever you’re feeling.
Getting more foundations like Butterfly Foundation, coming into the school and talking to students. And also peer education. I was looking at something the other day and having students make presentations, maybe and, you know, talking about this to open up a conversation that everyone feels comfortable with.
Sam Ikin 26:23
To look at the survey or just to get some highlights, it’s all on the Body Kind Youth Survey page in butterfly.org.au. There’s a direct link to it in the show notes. The number to call for support right now is the Butterfly Helpline, 1800 33 46 73 That’s 1800 ED HOPE. They’re open from 8am till midnight, seven days a week. So if you’re struggling right now, and you need some help, please give them a call. You can also chat online at butterfly.org.au or email email@example.com. Butterfly let’s talk is produced by Ikin Media for Butterfly Foundation with the support of Waratah Education Foundation. I am your host and producer Sam Ikin. Our executive producer is Camilla Becket, we have lived experience support from Kate Mulray and many thanks to Melissa Wilton for her support as well. Now if we can ask a little favour, could you leave us a rating and a review in the app that you’re listening to this on right now? The more positive the better, obviously, we would be eternally grateful. I’m Sam Ikin. Thank you so much for your company.