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Are Celebrities Good Role Models?

Celebrities have a powerful impact on how teens view themselves and how they behave.

Celebrities have always had a powerful presence in American culture. Looking up to and even obsessing over celebrities is a part of growing up. But social media has given teens greater exposure to famous people than ever before. And like it or not, celebrities have a tremendous impact on how teens view themselves and how they behave.  

Some celebrities have a positive influence on young people, while others portray unrealistic and unattainable ideals of beauty. There are also celebrities who normalize, even glorify, substance use with their social media posts, song lyrics, or music videos.

As the need for adolescent mental health treatment increases across the country, the positive and negative influence of celebrities is a topic too important to ignore.  

The Impact of Media on Teen Body Image

Research shows that teen body image is shaped by many factors. These include friends and family, where the teen lives, and their cultural background. However, celebrity images have a profound impact on teen body image.

A YouGov survey found that most Americans think that the media has a negative impact on women’s body image. An overwhelming 76% of adults agree that the media promotes an unattainable body image for women. Additionally, more than half of those surveyed believe these unattainable body standards also exist for men.  

In addition to the media, the fashion industry has a long history of underrepresenting a wide range of body types in their advertising. The same survey revealed that only 11% of Americans feel that fashion companies have a positive impact on body image.  

How Celebrities Influence Teen Eating Disorders

Why does celebrity influence on teen body image matter? Because body dissatisfaction is linked to mental health challenges, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Studies find that young women who consume media with many images of an unrealistic “thin ideal” are more likely to exhibit symptoms of disordered eating. In addition, the Girl Scouts Research Institute found that nearly half of girls ages 13 to 17 wish they were as skinny as the models in fashion magazines.

When Celebrities Go Too Far

Celebrity influencers play into this trend when they document their extreme diets or use language that can be triggering for those with eating disorders. For example, the entertainer Kim Kardashian expressed gratitude for being told she looked anorexic. News outlets covered a conversation between the Kardashians and the backlash it spawned.

When celebrities minimize the severity of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, or endorse taking unhealthy products to suppress appetite, they are emulating dysfunction.

Furthermore, for celebrities who are exploited for their physical bodies as often as the Kardashian family is, they are shirking an opportunity to reframe the narrative around healthy weight. Hence, teens are told that looking skinny defines your worth. This messaging is superficial, heartbreaking for many, and can be deadly for those who suffer with life-threatening eating disorders.

And it’s not just teen girls who are affected. Research shows that young men also experience body dissatisfaction and depression as a result of viewing media images. And this body dissatisfaction can lead to unhealthy, excessive exercising among male teens.

Body Positivity Movement

In recent years, the body positivity movement has challenged cultural and societal deals of beauty. It encourages the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities.  

Companies like Dove have been at the forefront of body positivity. To mark 20 years since the launch of their “Campaign for Real Beauty”, the company conducted the world’s largest beauty report. They surveyed over 33,000 people across 20 countries to gauge the impact of beauty on women and girls around the world. The findings show the pressure girls and women are under to achieve societal beauty standards.  

Here are some highlights from the survey: 

  • Only 2% of women feel they are beautiful 

  • 1 in 3 women feel pressure to change their appearance because of online images 

  • 2 in 5 young girls feel pressured to alter their appearance based on images of influencers they see on social media. 

  • 2 in 5 women would give up a year of their life to achieve their beauty ideals 

  • 9 in 10 women and girls have been exposed to harmful beauty content on social media  

  • 65% of men and 68% of boys wish they were taller 

  • 79% of men and 74% of boys don’t think they are muscular enough

Positive Celebrity Influence on Teen Body Image

Some celebrities influence the body-image discussion for the better. For example, singer Ariana Grande has been body-shamed for being too thin. Addressing the comments on TikTok, she wrote, “There are ways to compliment someone or to ignore something that you see that you don’t like, that I think we should help each other work towards. We should aim toward being safer and keeping each other safer.”

Other celebrities, including Rihanna and Zendaya, have spoken out against the ideals of beauty promoted by the entertainment and fashion industries. During the 2017 Beautycon Festival, Zendaya shared the importance of using her platform to show all of the beauty that exists within the African American community. “I am Hollywood’s, I guess you could say, acceptable version of a Black girl, and that needs to change.”

"You shouldn't be pressured into trying to be thin by the fashion industry, because they only want models that are like human mannequins. You have to remember that it's not practical or possible for any everyday woman to look like that. It's not realistic and it's not healthy." - Rihanna

Substance Use and Celebrity Influences

Celebrities influence teens in other ways as well. When stars post images of themselves drinking or smoking on social media, they normalize substance use. Furthermore, they make it appear attractive and cool. This is one way that social media can have a negative impact on teen mental health.

Teens often idolize celebrities and want to be like them. Therefore, if they see images on Instagram of a favorite singer or actor using drugs or drinking, they might be tempted to do so as well.

For example, a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study looked at teenagers who frequently listen to music that contains references to marijuana. Subsequently, they found that these teens are more likely to use the drug than teens with less exposure to such lyrics.

In addition, for every hour that American teens listen to music, they hear more than three references to different brand names of alcohol. Researchers say that this might contribute to teen drinking. In addition, researchers at Dartmouth Medical School found that movie characters who smoke cigarettes influence teens to try smoking. Therefore, media influence on youth can contribute to risk-taking behaviors.

Why Are Celebrities Good Role Models?

Some celebrities are open about their own struggles with body image or mental health. Selena Gomez is a notable example of a celebrity who has used her platform of more than 428 million social media followers to destigmatize mental health. She has openly shared her own struggles with bipolar disorder on social media and in her documentary Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me.

In 2021 Gomez co-founded Wondermind, a mental health wellness website, with her mom Mandy Teefey, and newsletter entrepreneur Daniella Pierson. People can come to the site for information and resources on all things mental health including articles, interviews, even journaling prompts.

Singer Billie Eilish has become a strong advocate for mental health, openly sharing her struggles with body dysmorphia, depression, and suicidal thoughts. And Simone Biles received both criticism and applause when she withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics final individual all-around to focus on her mental health. The organization released a statement in support of the elite gymnast’s decision, saying, “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”

These are just a few of the many celebrities who have shared their struggles with the world. As a result, celebrities play a significant role in influencing the public’s understanding of these issues.

How to Talk to Teens About Celebrity Influence

How does media influence teens? Because pop culture plays such a big role in teens’ lives, celebrities influence the way teens think and what they talk about. Therefore, parents can use celebrities’ experiences as avenues for talking about sensitive subjects.

Some celebrities are unable to overcome mental health conditions and continue to dive deeper into self-destructive behaviors. The death this year of famed “Friends” star Matthew Perry brought renewed attention to mental illness and substance use disorder. This tragedy is an opportunity for parents to reinforce that those suffering with mental health and substance use disorders must seek professional treatment as soon as possible.

Thus, celebrity anorexia cases offer opportunities to talk to teens about how dangerous the “thin ideal” can be. And they can discuss healthy ways to stay fit and eat well. Moreover, stars who speak out about coping with mental illnesses demonstrate that people with such diagnoses can be successful and happy.

Start the Conversation

As a parent, you might ask your teen what they admire about the stars they follow. What qualities do they want to emulate? Perhaps creativity, passion, or dedication? What can they learn from the lives of celebrities who have struggled with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or substance use?

It’s important to remember that celebrities are real people who experience real struggles. But because they are in the public eye, their influence on teens, good or bad, is powerful. As a parent, you can help them sort through the information to take away healthiest, most positive messages.

Mental Health Help for Teens

Celebrities and social media influencers are filling your teen’s social feed daily with images that may make them feel “less than” or “not enough.” It’s important to observe your teen for signs of any mental health struggles they may be experiencing, such as depression or anxiety.

Article Courtesy of Newport Academy

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