Girls can internalize negative body images even as pre-adolescents

March 06, 2001

Dieting is common behavior for girls as young as 10 years of age, according to study results that suggest efforts to prevent eating disorders should not overlook pre-adolescents.

"Weight preoccupation in prepubertal girls is a concern because dieting at this age can impact growth and may increase risk for fatigue, irritability, low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders," said lead author Nancy E. Sherwood, PhD, of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Using data from a survey of Girl Scouts, Sherwood and co-author Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, measured the incidence of dieting in 234 Girl Scout troop members who were approximately 10 years old.

The survey also queried girls about their exposure to various magazines and their awareness of the influence of the media. To gauge their internalization of sociocultural ideals, the Girls Scouts were asked if they agree with statements such as, "Pictures of thin girls and women make me wish I was thin."

Nearly 30 percent of the girls reported trying to lose weight, the researchers found. The study results appear in the March 2001 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Most of the dieters reported using healthy methods to lose weight, such as increasing their levels of exercise and decreasing their consumption of high-fat foods, but a small number of study participants (12) said they took diet pills, purged or took laxatives to lose weight.

"Although it is of concern that one-third of 10- and 11-year-old girls are dieting, it was encouraging that most reported engaging in healthy behaviors," said Sherwood.

Asked to describe how they felt about various parts of their bodies, the study participants tended to express the most dissatisfaction with their stomach, thighs and body weight, and they were most satisfied with their height, face and body shape.

In terms of their internalization of sociocultural ideals, over 25 percent of the girls agreed that: "Pictures of thin girls and women make me wish I were thin" and "I wish I looked like a magazine model" while far more of the Girls Scouts, nearly 60 percent, agreed that: "I do not want to look like models in magazines."

The Girls Scouts reported high levels of awareness of the media's influence, with over 75 percent agreeing that advertisements influence people's thoughts and behaviors. "They were more likely to read magazines like American Girl and Girls Life, which tend to promote healthy body image, than magazines like Seventeen, which amplify cultural norms regarding thinness," according to Sherwood.

The researchers caution, however, that Girls Scouts may not be representative of the rest of the population. "Emphasis in Girl Scouts on self-esteem suggests that these data may underestimate levels of weight concern and body dissatisfaction in girls this age," said Sherwood.

Research is needed on why early dieting happens and how sociocultural ideals become internalized, according to the study.

"These findings suggest early adolescence may be a good time to intervene with girls for eating disorder prevention and health promotion," said Sherwood. "Prevention programs should help girls critically evaluate media messages to protect against internalization of unhealthy body image ideals."
The research was supported by a grant from the Minnesota Medical Foundation.

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