How do peers, cultural messages, and the media impact a person’s body image?

By Yushin Wang, Thomas S. Wootton High School, 10th Grader

The Student Eating Disorder Awareness Association (SEDAA) at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland is a high school club raising awareness about eating disorders and helping to build positive self-esteem among boys and girls.

They reached out to us because they hosted a writing competition, judged by an English teacher, where participants submitted a writing piece about how social media, peers, and cultural messages can influence one’s body image. We were humbled and honored to publish the winning piece and strongly support their initiative. Below you will find the winner’s piece:

Prompt: How do peers, cultural messages, and the media impact a person’s body image? How do you think people should handle the impact of peers, cultural messages, and the media?

In the current high school atmosphere, many high schoolers might think “I wish I were skinny,” “I wish I had skin like her,” or “I wish I were taller” and only focus on physical appearance. Influences from peers, social media, and cultural messages have negatively impacted body image among high school students. We should handle these negative impacts by understanding the truth about beauty.

Peers, social media, and cultural messages negatively impact teens’ body image in different ways. In school, peers pressure each other to compete for the ideal body. Teens view the ideal body mainly as thin and tall for girls; muscular and fit for boys. Those who come closer to the ideal body are envied while those who fall farther are mocked and even bullied. Social media is flooded with photoshop editing and filters. This software creates a false sense of beauty, exposing teens to unattainable standards. Even if teens realize this fact, they will inevitably compare themselves to these impossible beauty standards. Cultural messages force people to conform to societies’ standards of beauty. These standards are usually difficult to reach and unhealthy to maintain. As a result, many teens suffer from low body image and low self-esteem, which can potentially lead to eating disorders. This false perception of beauty has permeated throughout teens’ daily lives, disrupting them by distorting their views of themselves.

The lack of confident body image in teens today has reached levels that are dangerous, physically and mentally. Helping teens understand beauty is essential and urgent for addressing these negative impacts.

Beauty is self-respect and confidence. Many teens lack confidence in their physical traits; however, they don’t realize that physical traits are not what make them beautiful. Beauty is an internal quality. The classic novel, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, is a great example of the definition of beauty. Jane is a plain-looking girl who had a miserable childhood. Throughout her
life, she meets people with different sets of values, which don’t resonate with her, and eventually develops her own. Jane never views herself as inferior to anyone and never wishes to change the way she appears. She perceives beauty as “neither of fine color nor long eyelash, nor penciled
brow, but of meaning, of movement, of radiance.” Jane’s self-respect and confidence make her stand out as an exemplar of beauty for everyone. Her character is still iconic today because she possesses values that transcend time.

Beauty is how you treat others. Many teens today lack respect and do not attempt empathy or understanding for those around them. Instead, they can be mean and incredibly vindictive. Many teens likely believe that their appearance matters more than their behavior, unaware that interior ugliness will always ruin physical beauty. In Stendhal’s novel, The Red and
The Black, Julien Sorel, the main character, is immensely handsome. Born a woodcutter’s son, he sets his eyes on rising through Parisian society. At the beginning of his journey for status, he retains kind qualities; however, he quickly abandons his morals and turns to deceit and self-interest. He pursues and seduces wealthy and beautiful women in an attempt to climb the social ladder. It’s hard to believe that such a handsome man “concealed an inextinguishable will to die a thousand deaths rather than fail to make his fortune.” His unscrupulous and cruel treatment of others completely mars his physical beauty and dooms him to an early demise. In fact, Julien Sorel is known today as a tragic character in French literature.

People with positive and strong internal qualities will always be beautiful even if they do not conform to society’s physical beauty standards. We need more people to see their own intrinsic worth to effectively combat the negative impacts of peers, culture, and media from the root.

About the author:

Yushin Wang is the Co-President of the Student Eating Disorder Awareness Association (SEDAA) at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland. We are a high school club raising awareness about eating disorders and helping to build positive self-esteem among boys and girls.

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