Wheeling Jesuit University

WJU Students Conduct Research on Adolescents and Their Body Image

Is thin in? Are bulging biceps best? Do female adolescents believe they need to be extremely thin to fit the ideal image? Do young males think they need to have a muscular build to have the perfect body? Does the ideal body size vary among different cultures?

Two Wheeling Jesuit University students recently conducted research on male and female adolescents regarding their views on their body images and found interesting variations compared to what is acceptable in today’s society.

A previous study was conducted on adult women and men by Michelle Dingus, a WJU senior, and Dr. Debra Hull, WJU professor of psychology and department chair. Their study found that college-age and adult women wanted to be thinner and less muscular, while college age men wanted to be more muscular and adult men wanted to be thinner, but more muscular than they actually are. Societal pressures are thought to contribute to this body dissatisfaction, and this desire to be a different size may drive women to develop eating disorders and men to use potentially dangerous muscle enhancing drugs.

“This most recent study was designed to measure body size satisfaction among a sample of adolescent girls and boys and their impression of what the other sex finds attractive” said Hull. “Because body image is an important aspect of one’s self-esteem, it is important to understand if and when individuals begin to experience body image dissatisfaction.”

Martha Bowman and Whitney Haddad are the two WJU psychology students who conducted the most recent research on adolescents. Bowman is a senior psychology major from Lanham, Md. and Haddad is a December 2001 graduate from Parkersburg, W.Va. Haddad is now working toward a master’s in physical therapy at WJU. Bowman and Haddad used line drawings for body size evaluation. The scales ranged from extremely thin to obese/muscular.

Bowman extended the previous study on college students and adults to include adolescents, ages 13-17. Her participants consisted of the adolescent children of WJU staff who wished to participate. The participants were given the body size scale and were asked confidentially to rate how they looked, how they wanted to look, what they thought the other sex liked and what they liked in the other sex. Participants were also asked to document their height, weight and age. A Body Mass Index (BMI) was computed for each body size on the scale and the BMI was calculated for each participant. [BMI=(wt. in pounds x705)/(ht. in inches x ht. in inches)]

“I found that the girls seemed fairly satisfied with their bodies, but the males wanted to be more muscular,” said Bowman. “Both males and females were accurate in what they thought the other liked. Also, there were no significant differences found in the girls’ self-ratings and how they wanted to look. But, the BMI that corresponded with the girls’ self-ratings were significantly lower than their actual BMI, indicating that they rated themselves as being smaller than they actually were (according to the scale).”

According to Bowman, there was a significant difference in the boys’ ratings-boys wanted to be significantly more muscular than they actually were. There was no significant difference found in their actual BMI and the BMI of their self-rating; they rated themselves accurately. When the adolescents were asked what they thought the other sex liked, they answered accurately, indicating that these adolescents have a pretty good idea of what the other sex finds attractive.

Haddad studied magazine advertisements from the United States, France and Latin America to determine whether ideal body size differed from culture to culture. She and two other students rated the models in the magazine advertisement, using the same body size scale as previously mentioned. She found that women modeling in American and French magazine advertisements did not differ significantly in size, but that the women in Latino magazine advertisements were significantly larger than American women. “The results suggest that Latin Americans may not promote a thin body as the ideal image for women,” said Haddad.

Past research has found a link between body image and eating disorders. Haddad’s research implies that French and American cultures may be at high risk for developing eating disorders because media presents a thin body ideal, whereas Latin Americans are not at a very high risk for developing eating disorders. However, it has been found that Latin American women are striving to be thinner and their occurrence of eating disorders is on the rise - this may be due to their being influenced to American cultures and striving to fit in.

Current studies are being done to look at the body image in 10- to 13-year old children, using children’s body size scale.

“Together we are hoping all studies will begin to paint a picture about the characteristics of body image dissatisfaction, and to find how and in whom it is most likely to develop,” said Hull.

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