girls’ self-perception of popularity tied to weight gain

a new study of 4000 teenage girls shows that girls who perceive themselves to be popular are less likely to gain significant quantities of weight in the future (reported on here). in fact, girls who considered themselves unpopular, were 69% more likely, over the following two years, to increase their weight by two body mass units (the equivalent of about 11 pounds, depending on height and weight).

in one sense, this doesn’t sound surprising at all: girls who perceive themselves as popular would — it seems — have a lot more motivation to obsess about their weight and work to stay thin. in fact, there’s likely a bit of a vicious cycle here, as only those girls (normally) who already DO obsess about their weight and achieve a certain level of thin-ness have any real chance at popularity in today’s youth culture. i know there are exceptions to this, but it would seem to be the norm.

i have a hard time knowing where to land on the issue of weight and teenagers, particularly with girls. on one hand, my primary interest is to help all girls know that they are wonderful and beautiful and loved. on the other hand, i know that teenage obesity is on the rise, and has serious health implications. sure, we can talk about being “healthy” rather than “thin”. but, really, especially for me, as a male youth worker, it seems like i can’t EVER bring up weight (even in an effort to talk about being “healthy”) with girls — i need to focus my interactions on letting girls know they’re accepted by me and valued irregardless of their weight. plus, anyone who has ever seen me knows it would be a bit of the pot (belly) calling the kettle black for me to talk about “healthy weight”. :)

so what role should youth workers (male or female) play in talking about weight issues?

8 thoughts on “girls’ self-perception of popularity tied to weight gain”

  1. Mark,

    I have a few different thoughts…

    If a male youth worker is talking to a group of girls (giving a message to youth group, or in a similar seeing) I think he has to address both sides of the issue, or girls are going to feel picked on. For exmaple, he can talk about weight from the standpoint of anxiety…what are you doing with food when you’re anxious? eating too much? not eating at all? are there better ways to deal with anxiety? where does the Cross fit in to the conflict between anxiety and abuse/neglect of food?

    The other thing is that I really want to affirm your impulse to let girls know they are loved and beautiful. I know we all want to be concerned about what is appropriate, but all too often, while the adults are worrying about that, there are teen girls in desperate need of affirmaiton (from adult men and women). I think its a good thing that you are not afraid on this one – lately I’ve seen so many who are.

  2. Other than severely overweight teens, I think diets for teenagers is over reacting. I do think the church is way overdue in teaching kids about how pursueing health can be a part of their worship and brings glory to God. For so long I just had a long list of negative reasons why I needed to lose weight, and it was just too overwhelming and depressing for me; I constantly felt like a failure. It was only when I realized I could bring glory to God that I began to feel hope, because then my size no longer mattered – what mattered was what I was doing in that moment. I got tremendous hope from that and I htink it’s very appropriate to tell teens that. They’re hearing in school, after school programs, the media, the doctor’s office, etc., that too many kids are overweight and it’s killing their generation, so they are hearing it. And the over weight kids are the victims of teasing from friends, enemies, teachers and parents (apparently many parents think they can shame their kids into losing weight – but it has the opposite effect in reality). In fact, the only ones not talking to kids about their weight any more is the church, the one group that can give them a truly beautiful reason for pursuing health! To me, I think we’ve been way too politically correct on this issue and way to slow to react. I know I couldn’t talk on it for years, but when I did the work to get healthy, I earned the right to talk about it with kids in my community, which is awesome.

    I actually wrote an article on just this topic for the Journal of Student Ministries; read it and let me know what you think!

  3. hey marko…. i have to be qualified to weigh in on this. i think.

    the reality is i feel no more qualified to speak about healthy weight gain or loss with my girls than i ever did, even minus the 90+ pounds. And especially when so many of them want to know what made the difference. it’s the scariest thing in the world when teenagers who are already bone thin look to you with wide open eyes hoping for some future tips. icky.

    you know what though? I’ve got a couple of young guys in my group that are also fealing with or have recently dealt with issues around body image, resulting in anorexia and bulimia. So, I think that in years to come the studies will reflect an increasing growth of these cases.

    i think we have a prerogative though, to address the issues rather than not speaking. In some instances it’s a matter of food choices, laziness, environment, lifestyle. In other cases there are significant health issues that cause the problem – and sometimes there are significant pschyological issues that contribute to unhealthy behaviours. Either way – we have a responsibility to holistic care of our young people.

    I was once told by a stick-thin health freak youth pastor, when i was about 25, that I was irresponsible being in front of young people as I was setting a bad example in regards to the weight I was carrying. He had no relationship with me whatsoever and his words were irresponsible. But.. I do believe that caring, patient and honest dialogue between youthworkers and young people (regardless of gender) is one of the healthiest processes by which we can address the overall health of our young people.

    Not because of social expectations, but for the sake of the underlying pain and issues that both cause and are caused by obesity and other body/food issues.

    So.., screw’em, the politically correct. I just think I would rather have had someone who cared convince me sooner, that I could do something about it, and support me in the tools & process.

  4. Hey Marko,

    I am glad you blogged on this because it is something that has been on my heart lately. As a youth pastor who constantly hears her girls refer to themselves as fat, I knew something needed to happen.

    This past week, I had a girls’ slumber party. During that time, I had a slideshow presentation on beauty and the media. We talked about photoshopping magazine covers, what celebrities look like without makeup, etc. It lead into a discussion that we are all created by God to be who we are. This doesn’t mean we don’t try to be healthy and take care of ourselves, but it does mean that we all won’t look like models. And that is okay.

    I think this is where our focus needs to be. So many of our youth are discouraged by what they see in the media and feel like they will never measure up. And the truth is that they won’t…because the pictures aren’t real.

    Anyway, I found this setting to be wonderful. We even did 80s makeovers after (as to not undermine our lesson by doing real makeovers). If someone is going to talk to the girls in your youth group, it needs to be a female who they trust, for sure.

    My two cents, anyway.

  5. Our church has an after school youth center, mostly with 3-6 grade kids. Some of the negative body image stuff is already ingrained in them at that age. Rather than struggling with what to say in response to that, I’ve tried to make our church a healthier place for the kids to hang out. While it’s easier to round up cookies and sugary foods, I’m trying to bring in more fruits and veggies and other healthy snacks. I’m hoping the example of healthy activity and good for them food will at least have some impact. It’s so much easier to fall into the pizza, crap food and cookies rut with youth snacks.

  6. This is a tough topic. As a former ballet dancer I’m pretty fit, but I quit ballet when the pressure changed from being healthy to being emaciated. I was not okay with that. Even knowing how fit and healthy I am, it can be hard working with girls who are starving themselves. Once in while I have to ask God to bring me back to right thinking in regards to my weight. But really the harder thing is that the girls who are starving themselves think I can’t understand them because I’m naturally thin, and the girls who are overweight think I’m judging them. This is an issue I’ve had to address with lots of prayer.

    One definite trend I’ve noticed is that the girls who tend to focus more on their weight are the girls who have absent fathers, or whose fathers began treating them differently once they hit puberty. I know that’s a hard change for fathers, but it’s so important for them to show their daughters how precious and beautiful they are. I’ve been observing this for three years now and am amazed at the difference in the confidence of the girls whose fathers show them the same affection (in healthy appropriate ways) as teenagers that they did as children.

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