Body Image a Critical Factor in Treatment of Adolescent Girls

By Roes, Nicholas A. | Addiction Professional, July 2005 | Go to article overview
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Body Image a Critical Factor in Treatment of Adolescent Girls

Roes, Nicholas A., Addiction Professional

For adolescent girls, a healthy body image is one of the most important ingredients for success--both in the treatment and prevention of substance abuse. With very few female-only programs available, and counselors drawing upon research that focuses mostly on males, body image problems are often overlooked. This leaves many young women at an unnecessarily high risk of relapse or first-time experimentation with drugs and alcohol.


The research that is available shows that a healthy body image is a protective factor against substance abuse, as well as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-mutilation (Cash and Pruzinsky, 2002). The importance of a healthy self-esteem is widely accepted as a focus of treatment, and for female adolescents it's almost impossible to separate a healthy body image from a healthy self-esteem.

There are many theories on the cause of the current epidemic of body image problems in this population. Purists from all schools may insist that there is one main cause, but it's more likely that there are several contributing factors, and that just about everyone who thinks they know the cause is at least partially right.

Childhood sexual abuse can cause body image problems--especially the most severe body image problems that are accompanied by eating disorders, depression, anxiety, or self-mutilation. Clients who view the abuse as ugly and disgusting may transfer those feelings to their bodies and view their bodies as ugly and disgusting. If they experienced any pleasurable feelings during any of the abuse, clients may feel as if their bodies have betrayed them (ibid.). It's widely accepted that dealing with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse is helpful to the maintenance of quality sobriety.

The psychodynamic perspective views body image problems as resulting from interactions with the child's caretaker during the first two or three years of life. If the caretaker is competent, the theory goes, the baby learns to distinguish herself from her surroundings, learns the boundaries of her body by the caretaker's hands outlining it, and sees healthy boundaries reinforced by the caretaker's sense of empathy.

When there's an incompetent caretaker, the child may lose all sense of self as she struggles to get the caretaker's attention. If the caretaker responds only to physical needs or pain, the child may learn to organize her experience around pain and illness (ibid.). Those whose early-childhood experiences contribute to body image problems may benefit from re-parenting.

Others believe that our attitudes toward our bodies are learned. We learn to see ourselves as others see us. If we're complimented on our appearance, we learn that we are attractive. If we're teased, we learn that we are unattractive.

Girls often take on the values of their mothers, and body image offers no exception. As a girl approaches adolescence, her father's comments on her changing body can have a big effect. To the extent that poor body image is learned, it can be unlearned, with new messages helping to reshape the poor image.

Still others see Western culture to blame. In our culture there seems to be different expectations for those who meet the culturally defined standard of beauty and those who don't. Studies show that most of us associate attractiveness with health, wealth, social competence and career success.

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Body Image a Critical Factor in Treatment of Adolescent Girls


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