Expert Body Image Tips in the Age of Ozempic

In an age when weight loss drugs are all the rage and body image issues are as common as ever, an expert offers tips for improving your relationship with your body and yourself.

Young adulthood is a challenging time of life for many, requiring a new level of independence and decision making for the very first time. It’s also a time when many struggle with self-confidence and self-love, particularly when it comes to body image.

But Charlotte H. Markey, Ph.D is hoping to help.

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Markey, a professor of psychology and chair of the Health Sciences Department at Rutgers University has published over 100 book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals, mostly on the subject of body image. Her book, "The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless," published in 2020, was met with rave reviews. And in 2022, she published "Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys," the only book aimed at helping boys with body image issues.

While much of Markey’s previous work has focused on adolescents' body image, the author is shifting her focus to young adults in her newest book, "ADULTISH: The Body Image Book for Life," to be released in August. The book provides personal stories and evidence-based guidance on topics including body image, social media, sex, mental health, and nutrition.

<center>Charlotte H. Markey</center>
Charlotte H. Markey

Ample research demonstrates that this age group specifically struggles deeply with developing a positive relationship with their bodies as they transition into adulthood, a fact that may not come as a surprise when considering that they’re coming of age amidst special media filters, influencers, misleading online nutritional advice, a pandemic, and the rise of blockbuster weight loss drugs.

“'Fixing’ body image has all too often focused on changing our appearance — losing weight, getting a new wardrobe, buying cosmetics, or even pursuing plastic surgery,” Markey says. “This is understandable because we are all inundated with messaging and advertisements that suggest that we will be happier and people will like us more if we ‘invest’ in our appearance.”

But while Markey says she doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to body positivity, she does believe in the importance of looking inward and questioning our beliefs and habits to determine if those beliefs and habits are truly serving us.

Ahead of her upcoming book release, Healthnews spoke with Markey about some of the body image-related issues faced by young adults today and how to overcome them.

Q. What are some of the greatest challenges young adults face when it comes to body image?

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A. Body dissatisfaction emerges early in life — as early as the preschool years — but tends to increase during adolescence and young adulthood. Many things contribute to this increase, ranging from puberty to bullying from peers. Something especially uniqueabout early adulthood is that young people tend to be somewhat vulnerable and increasingly responsible for their own health in terms of what they eat, the activities they participate in, and who they spend time with. This combination of experiences can leave young adults in need of body image support.

Q. What role does social media play?

A. Social media offers up a barrage of images and information about how to look and how to live. All of this can be very compelling to young adults who are becoming increasingly independent and trying to sort out who they are. Social comparison — the act of comparing oneself to others — is believed to be one of the primary reasons that social media can be harmful. With filtered, stylized images representing others’ best lives, young adults can often feel that they fall short in a variety of ways.

Q. How is this impacting this age group's mental health?

A. Young people’s mental health was declining before the pandemic, and the pandemic only exacerbated the problems. Some research suggests that depression and anxiety doubled among youth around the world during the pandemic; one in four reported symptoms of depression and one in five reported symptoms of anxiety. In fact, mental health issues are the leading causes of illness and disability among youth, and suicide is a leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds.

So how much of this is caused by social media? The research is not completely clear for a variety of reasons. Most of the studies are correlational, the social media platforms change faster than the research can keep up, and there are a number of factors that are likely contributing to youths’ mental health decline. But those of us doing research looking at social media, body image, and mental health among young people are confident that social media is problematic. We’re still trying to understand who is most vulnerable, which platforms and what type of content is most problematic, and how to protect kids from potential harms.

Q. How can young adults combat social media’s negative influence on mental health, body image, and overall sense of self?

A. There are a variety of strategies I discuss in "Adultish" that can help to mitigate the potential harms of social media. I’ve created an acronym, F.A.C.E., to help people remember them:

F. Filter – Protective filtering is a term used by body image scientists. Filter out messages and messengers on social media that make you feel bad, and curate your algorithm to make social media a safe place for you.

A. Avoid – Completely avoiding social media may be unrealistic for a variety of reasons, but you can absolutely avoid it for certain parts of the day, during meals, right before bed, etc. Form good social media habits.

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C. Careful of Comparisons – Remind yourself that the people you see on social media are not necessarily those you should be comparing yourself to. Influencers and celebrities have very different resources that contribute to how they appear in these spaces.

E. Evaluate – Be skeptical and critical of what you see on social media. Are you beingsold something (a product, a lifestyle)? Is what you are viewing "real" or edited to look a certain way? Would you really want to look like or be the person you are seeing?

Q. What impact is the rise of drugs like Ozempic having on body image?

A. Drugs like Ozempic and the media hype surrounding them are reinforcing the idea sold by diet culture for decades: that our bodies are infinitely malleable. So far, Ozempic seems to lead to more weight loss than traditional diets have, but we don’t have long-term data yet to know if it can lead to sustained weight loss (if use is continued), who these medications are appropriate for, and who can take them continuously. Because of the extensive side effects associated with them, many people cannot use these drugs at all, much less continuously; we know weight is regained when the drugs are discontinued.

Regardless, even if people can use Ozempic or a similar drug (and can afford to purchase it!), it will not completely change their size or shape; our bodies are not completely malleable. We are genetically predisposed to have a certain height, body shape, and body size just as we have certain eye colors and shoe sizes. I worry that the messaging about weight loss drugs is likely to lead to more body dissatisfaction as more people are led to believe they can and should try to change their body.

Q. How can young adults accept, respect, and take care of their bodies in an age of weight loss medications like Ozempic?

A. I don’t think any of this is easy and I don’t think most of us will love our bodies every single day. But we can appreciate our strengths, learn to take good care of ourselves, and treat our bodies with respect. Although our culture may suggest we need to “fix” ourselves in a variety of ways (and purchase products and medications to achieve this), body image is psychological — it’s an "inside job." How we think about ourselves and treat ourselves is under our control even if the beauty standards and appearance ideals that surround us are not.

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