Body image drives poor mental health, especially in youth
Analysis of the 2017–2018 WHO HBSC survey shows that girls report poorer mental health than boys. Nearly one in two girls – 47 % – report mental health difficulties at least once a week, compared with 34 % of boys. Some reasons for higher rates of mental health problems among girls and young women may be related to permanent concerns over physical appearance and body dissatisfaction, including weight. WHO notes that eating disorders commonly emerge during adolescence and young adulthood, and they mostly affect girls (WHO, 2020a). While boys are more likely to be overweight or obese, girls more often report perceiving their body to be too fat and being on weight-reducing diets. Gender differences increase with age (Inchley et al., 2016; Inchley et al., 2020). The share of adolescents reporting poor mental health grows significantly in tandem with greater dissatisfaction over body image. In contrast, actual body mass index or objectively being obese does not have a strong effect on mental health. Therefore, whether or not a person is overweight is irrelevant; rather, it is perceived overweight that is linked to increased risks of depressive symptoms and suicidality. This link has been observed irrespective of study location and the age or gender of participants (Haynes et al., 2019).
As highlighted in EIGE (2019b), adolescent girls’ concern over physical appearance correlates highly with their social media use. The ‘beauty myth’, by which girls and women are subjected to unachievable standards of beauty, balancing low self-esteem and self-confidence with competition with other women, is reinforced in online spaces (EIGE, 2019b). Comparisons with peers and professional models on social media (Carey et al., 2014) have been associated with body image concerns among adolescent girls, with social media playing an intermediary role (Tiggemann and Slater, 2013, 2014).
 HBSC study, 2013–2014, authors’ calculations. NB: Data is missing for Cyprus and Lithuania.