Healthy Living: A Teen Perspective

In 2006 the Girl Scout Research Institute published "The New Normal Report" in collaboration with the Michael Cohen Group, from data collected from 2,060 girls, 461 boys, and 599 mothers. The goal of the research was to collect information about
  • the general attitudes and perceptions of girls about a variety of health-related issues;
  • the influence of adult role models in determining girls' health-related attitudes and behaviors;
  • the impact of demographics and culture on attitudes toward health, body image, and health-related behaviors; and
  • the current level of awareness among girls concerning health-related information.

What the girls in this study said, was that they wanted to be "normal"- find that safe middle ground where they will not be teased, and will fit in with their peers. The major findings include these:
  • About 30% of the girls had a distorted perception of their own weight - perceiving themselves as heavy when they were not, or perceiving their weight as normal when they were heavy, and the older the girls, the greater the degree of distortion;
  • 26% of the girls had some dissatisfaction with her weight, compared to 19% of the boys;
  • More than 60% of teenage girls skip breakfast at least once a week and nearly 20% skip it every day;
  • The more physically active girls were, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they were with their weight, regardless of their weight, although 40% of the 11- 17 year old girls said they do not play sports because they do not feel skilled or competent and 23% do not think their bodies look good during sports;
  • Girls worried more than boys about everything (e.g., weight, peers, college, exercise, family, & school; and
  • 89% of girls reported that their mothers made positive comments about how they look.

Another important finding of this report was that moms were the most frequently cited source of health information and were clearly role models for their daughters. The girls with the broadest range of female role models, including women who were more full-bodied, were more satisfied with their own shapes.

Girls in this study defined health as the absence of illness or unhealthy activities or symptoms. Being free of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco was cited by the greatest number (87%) of girls as "healthy." When talking about health, these girls were not worried about the fact that only 19% of those over the age of 16 did something physical every day, or that 15% reported watching more than 3 hours of TV every day; or that 40% of the teens said they watch TV during dinner 3+ times a week.

One of the most important take home messages from this report was that although teens demonstrate basic knowledge about healthy foods, exercise, and eating, they often do not put that knowledge into practice, and it is "normal" for many teens to make poor choices with respect to diet and exercise. Factors contributing to this gap between health-related knowledge and behaviors include:
  • Not understanding the future consequences of current behavior;
  • A lack of healthy food options and positive role models;
  • Competing concerns, such as fitting in, that are more important at the time of the decisions; and
  • Not wanting to look "extreme," too healthy, or weird to friends.

It is clear from this report that efforts to improve the health of our teens must also be directed at adults, who can make a difference. If we want teens to make better choices about diet and exercise, we need to help them understand two important things. First, that diet and exercise patterns are linked to emotional health, self-esteem, and body image. We have to emphasize the importance of physical activity, in spite of increasing demands of homework, socializing, and extracurricular activities. We also need to provide more opportunities for girls to participate in informal, less competitive physical activities in safe environments where they do not feel self-conscious about their looks or ability, and where they can be active. Second, we have to demonstrate positive, long-term outcomes that result from health behaviors. The habits they form in their teen years will have long term results and be harder to break as adults.

Soy Unica! Soy Latina!
We Insist of Natural Shapes (WINS)
CDC's Youth media Campaign: VERB

Photo credit: saveena

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