What Is the Link Between Sexual Harassment, Body Image, and Eating Disorders in Young People?

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Sexual harassment can be experienced by young people of all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. In some places, as many as 95% of high school girls may experience sexual harassment.

Other studies show that about two in five young people have experienced sexual harassment in the past school term. Sexual harassment can have a big impact on a young person’s mental health and well-being, affecting their self-esteem and engagement in school or work.

When young people experience sexual harassment, it can affect how they perceive themselves, their appearance, and their bodies.

It may cause them to place more of their self-value on their appearance or their body shape and weight. They may become increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies or ashamed of the way they look.

All of these factors may make the development of an eating disorder more likely. Sexual harassment and eating disorders are linked, mediated by body shame and low self-esteem.

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that affect the mental and physical well-being of young people, requiring treatment and support.

This blog explores the link between sexual harassment and eating disorders, highlighting the importance of challenging sexual harassment in our societies to safeguard young people’s mental health and quality of life.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is the experience of unwanted sexual behaviours by another person, such as jokes, looks, gestures, or physical touch.

People of all genders and ages can experience sexual harassment – at home, in school, in the workplace, on the street, or in any other location. Sexual harassment may involve gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, or sexual coercion.

How Does Sexual Harassment Affect Young People’s Mental Health?

Research shows that sexual harassment is linked with a range of mental health symptoms, including depression, posttraumatic stress, anxiety, physical health problems, poor concentration, and disengagement from work or studies. It can interfere with the healthy development of a young person’s identity, autonomy, and social networks.

Because sexual harassment is so widespread and pervasive, it can affect young people’s sense of safety and security, causing feelings of unpredictability, loss of control, and distress

Sexual Harassment and Body Self-Esteem

When a young person receives unwanted comments or attention on their appearance, it can cause them to understand their physical body as important, rather than the many personality traits, characteristics, and actions that constitute their whole person.

It can make them see themselves as an object that may be used or evaluated by others, whose value lies in how other people perceive their bodies. 

Research shows that these ideas (known as self-objectification) cause young people to place increasing importance on their shape and weight.

They can also lead to body dissatisfaction and body shame, as young people compare their bodies to specific beauty standards defined by the media and social norms.

These effects can happen from a young age. Research suggests that by the age of 13, children who receive negative comments on their bodies and physical appearance already respond with increased body shame and monitoring.

These effects endure into adulthood, and studies show that sexual harassment is linked to lower self-esteem, especially body self-esteem.

Body Shame, Body Dissatisfaction, and Disordered Eating Behaviours

Some young people who experience body shame, dissatisfaction, or low self-esteem start to control their eating to try and change their body shape or weight. They may engage in disordered eating behaviours like diet restriction or purging.

Because young people may place a big part of their self-value in their bodies and appearance, these thoughts and behaviours can dominate their daily lives. They may continue disordered eating behaviours even when it threatens their physical well-being, mental health, and quality of life.

Preventing Sexual Harassment and Eating Disorders

Through body shame, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction, sexual harassment increases the risk that a young person will develop disordered eating or eating disorders.

Research among university students in Italy found that sexual harassment was linked to disordered eating symptoms in both men and women; the more harassment someone experienced, the more frequent the symptoms.

Equally, children aged 10-11 who reported being upset by sexual harassment were more likely to show disordered eating symptoms by age 14-15.

Interventions that aim to prevent sexual harassment in schools may go some way to making incidents less common and, as a result, improving the well-being of young people. This might involve encouraging young people to disclose incidents by establishing structures where this can happen safely and sensitively.

It might require developing more effective ways to hold perpetrators of harassment accountable and encourage change. It could mean creating school environments with a widespread awareness of the harms of sexual harassment, where it is clear that it will not be tolerated.

As adolescence is the peak age for both sexual harassment and the development of eating disorders, school-based programs are vitally important. By reducing the normalisation of these experiences and empowering young people to speak out, a big part of future harm may be prevented.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers transformative recovery experiences for young people, laying the foundations for bright and fulfilling futures. Our whole-person approach offers the highest level of psychological and physical healthcare alongside education, community work, and an international gap year experience.

Setting the standard for young people’s mental health support across the globe, we help young people grow in self-confidence, form lifelong relationships, and reconnect with their true selves.

Our team members are specialists in teenage and adolescent healthcare, applying their exceptional knowledge and experience to every young person’s journey. We work with young people to address trauma and other underlying issues in a safe and sensitive environment, opening the door to meaningful and lasting change.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, contact us today

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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