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A Big Fat Deal—Tackling Teen Body Image Dangers

Did you know in the United States more than 10 million girls and women are battling eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating? High school researcher Elisabeth Burton found a link between such disorders and how teens perceive their own body image as driven by the media.

Friend struggles with anorexia

A friend’s struggle with anorexia left Elisabeth Burton with only one question: Why?

Burton, then 14, set out to discover why adolescents often hold themselves to unrealistic standards of physical perfection. She spent three years researching the issue of negative body image and its relationship to eating disorders, substance abuse, and other problems. The media, she found, was a big part of the problem, and she hopes her research can be used to change how physical beauty is portrayed in magazines.

Her project, titled “A Big Fat Deal: Attribution of Body Talk, Risk Assessments of Steroid/Dietary Supplement Use, Perceptions of Media Images, and Self-Esteem," won top honors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), a program of Society for Science & the Public, two years in a row. 

Study reveals teen perceptions

"My friend, a fellow cellist in the youth symphony, would talk constantly about her body fat," recalls Burton, now a junior at Rio Rancho High School in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. "One day she was not at rehearsal and then was gone for a few weeks. Then she came back acting as though nothing was wrong." The girl, it turned out, suffered from anorexia. She eventually left and never came back.

This set Burton on a course to survey nearly 200 adolescent boys and girls. She looked at their attitudes about idealized body images in the media, as well as how those images affect self-esteem and behaviors such as dieting and exercise.

Among other things, she found that how teens perceive themselves physically in relation to the media affected their self-esteem—and that few of those teens understood that many of the images in the media are altered with Photoshop*.

Burton says the impact of the study continues to play out as she shares her findings in schools and elsewhere.

"Girls around the world are confronted with unrealistic and impossibly skinny Photoshopped models every day,” Burton says. "When girls are risking their health to pursue this unattainable standard, they have limited energies to develop other characteristics and make a difference in the world. The media is allowed to make a model look skinnier or more muscular; but what they are really making is an unrealistic and unattainable standard."

She says that the United States is one of the few countries that don’t have a limit on how much Photoshopping the media can do to images—and she hopes her research will be used to help change this.

Elisabeth Burton ISEF

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