Probing Question: Do boys or girls suffer more from poor body image?

July 30, 2010 By Melissa Beattie-Moss and A'ndrea Elyse Messer, Pennsylvania State University
Probing Question: Do boys or girls suffer more from poor body image?

Picture a crowded beach at the height of summer. Boys and girls of all shapes and sizes cavort in the waves and lounge on beach towels. It’s the skin-baring season -- and that can exacerbate body image woes for many teens. Who do you think is most unhappy with their bodies? Underweight or overweight? Girls or boys?

If you guessed overweight girls, think again. Recent research has found that underweight males are at high risk for depressive symptoms, as are female "weight pessimists" -- girls who think they are overweight but are actually normal weight.

"Underweight are extremely distressed, and are far more likely to be upset about their bodies than boys who are heavier," said Jason N. Houle, graduate student in sociology and demography. As for girls, "Parents often worry about overweight girls' mental health, but our findings show that it is girls who have a healthy weight but perceive being overweight who are most likely to feel depressed."

Houle was part of a Penn State research team, supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which looked at data from 6,557 male and 6,126 female participants in Wave II of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This dataset included the participants' actual weight; whether they thought they were underweight, overweight, or about the right weight; and their scores on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, a questionnaire that identifies symptoms of . The analysis accounted for , parental obesity, health status, physical activity, race, ethnicity and family structure.

The findings, published in the , suggest that society may have been overly focused on the wrong adolescents. "We focus on how overweight girls feel," noted Molly A. Martin, assistant professor of sociology and demography and study co-author. “But they may not suffer as many symptoms as we suspected. Past researchers may have missed the key groups: normal weight girls who think they are overweight, and underweight boys."

It’s not just weight that troubles kids, it’s the combination of weight and weight perceptions, said Houle. A concept called "health congruency" may be at work. Simply stated, health congruency is the degree to which your view of yourself is in line with reality. Anorexia is the most publicized example of unrealistic body image, but not the only one. "Clinicians cannot assume that healthy weight adolescents know their weight is healthy or feel good about it," says Michelle L. Frisco, assistant professor of sociology and demography, and the study’s third author.

While eighty percent of overweight girls know they are overweight, only forty percent of overweight boys think they are overweight. For overweight girls, being realists turns out to be good for their mental health: kids whose perceptions match reality are relatively unscathed, while those who look in the mirror and can’t accurately describe themselves run the greatest risk of depression.

"Society emphasizes healthy , but it also equates thinness with beauty," says Frisco. "These mixed messages may produce weight pessimism that is distressing for adolescents."

On the other hand, according to Houle, "Overweight teenagers may not be as emotionally troubled as we think."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

Brain changes found in self-injuring teen girls

November 13, 2018
The brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm, including cutting, show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness, a new ...

Largest ever study of psychological sex differences and autistic traits

November 12, 2018
Scientists at the University of Cambridge have completed the world's largest ever study of typical sex differences and autistic traits. They tested and confirmed two long-standing psychological theories: the Empathizing-Systemizing ...

Major traumatic injury increases risk of mental health diagnoses, suicide

November 12, 2018
People who experience major injuries requiring hospital admission, such as car crashes and falls, are at substantially increased risk of being admitted to hospital for mental health disorders, found a study in CMAJ (Canadian ...

Nearly one in ten Americans struggles to control sexual urges

November 9, 2018
(HealthDay)—The #MeToo movement has given many Americans a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that may have left many wondering, "What were they thinking?"

Brain activity pattern may be early sign of schizophrenia

November 8, 2018
Schizophrenia, a brain disorder that produces hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments, usually strikes during adolescence or young adulthood. While some signs can suggest that a person is at high risk for developing ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.