Teenagers and Body Image (page 2)

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

How Self-Image Develops: The Goodness-of-Fit Model

How do we develop an image of our physical selves? Researcher Richard Lerner3 has proposed a paradigm called "goodness of fit." He states that each person and his/her context are unique as a result of the specific combination of the features of that person and the conditions of his/her environment. Individuals elicit reactions from others as a result of their physical (i.e., body build) and psychological (i.e., behavior or temperament) characteristics. These reactions often feed back to the individual, providing the basis for further thought and action. Expectations are placed on a person as a result of the physical and/or social (i.e., parents, peers, media) components of a particular setting. The individual's success in differentially meeting these demands provides a basis for the feedback he/she gets from the environment. For instance, adolescents whose style of dress and hair meets parental approval might not simultaneously meet peer approval, or vice-versa. Problems in adjustment might develop as a result of mismatch, or lack of goodness-of-fit, in either the peer or parent context. The results of the present author's work over 15 years, as well as that of other researchers in the field, support the view that adolescents' physical characteristics provide a basis of their own bodyimage and psychosocial development by either fulfilling or not fulfilling the stereotypical images of their social milieu.

Normative Discontent

In the early adolescent and pre-teen years, girls whose bodies develop at a different pace than the average are especially prone to dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. Girls who are precociously developed as well as those less welldeveloped than peers are at risk. There have been very few studies examining adolescents' attitudes towards their bodies over time. However, in one such study,4 the authors measured body image, objective (rater) physical attractiveness and body mass index in the same 115 boys and girls at ages 13, 15, and 18. The results were compelling; across the same period in adolescence, girls' body image worsened while boys' improved. At age 13, the differences between the sexes were not dramatic, but the gap had widened considerably by age 15. The authors point out that as a normal consequence of puberty, girls experience an increase in body mass with an accumulation of fat around the hips and thighs. This "filling out" creates a disparity between the cultural ideal of slimness and the actual body type - a massive "goodness of fit" disparity. In general, boys in the study did not show an increase in dissatisfaction as they progressed in years; on the contrary, boys who were dissatisfied with their height at age 13 felt more comfortable with their height by age 15 - reflecting the fact that many were well into their growth spurt by this age. The authors conclude that the increase in height and muscle mass that boys experience in puberty, bringing them closer to a cultural ideal, may be related to their body image improvement.

How do adolescents' judgements of their own appearance relate to judgements by others? Which is a stronger predictor of dissatisfaction and lowered self-esteem? These are complex questions. Using data from a large-scale study called the Pennsylvania Early Adolescent Transition Study (PEATS), researcher Richard Lerner5 and colleagues found that there was no significant relationship between objective and subjective measures of attractiveness, and also little relationship between objective ratings and individual adjustment. It was the adolescents' own ratings of themselves that were correlated with anxiety and self-worth. How we view ourselves appears to be more important than how others see us.

Distortions of Body Image

Clearly, adolescent females who subjectively distort their body image, or those for whom there is a mismatch between their image and the environment, are at risk for several serious psychiatric disorders. Chief among these are the eating disorders - anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV) is an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight. Bulimia nervosa, felt to be a related disorder, is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by recurrent inappropriate compensatory behavior (such as purging) in order to prevent weight gain. The pathophysiology of these disorders, including a myriad of possible causes, is a separate area of inquiry beyond the scope of the present discussion. Most researchers and clinicians agree upon the fact that both of these disorders involve disturbances of perception, attitudes and behavior. Catherine Steiner-Adair sums up some of the research into the causes of eating disorders, against a backdrop of female adolescent development and societal values, as follows: "Girls who are able to identify contemporary cultural values and ideal images of women that are unsupportive of core female adolescent developmental needs and who are also able to reject these values in choosing their own female ideal image are not prone to eating disorders. Girls who are unable to identify the societal values that are detrimental to their developmental needs, and who identify with the ideal image that is projected by these values, are at risk for developing eating disorders." Research into the biologic and genetic causes of eating disorders is presently being conducted, and it appears that certain individuals have a biologic predisposition to develop these illnesses.

Both anorexia and bulimia can have serious medical, as well as psychiatric consequences. A teen with anorexia who is severely underweight may require hospitalization for malnutrition. Although a teen with bulimia nervosa might appear healthier than one with anorexia, there are serious potential medical complications of bulimia including electrolyte imbalance as a result of frequent vomiting, gastrointestinal as well as dental problems, irregular heartbeat and even cardiac arrest.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder: An Extreme Distortion

Another psychiatric disorder that is associated with a disturbance of body image is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), formerly Dysmorphophobia. This disorder has been described in the world psychiatric literature for more than a century, and has been studied systematically in the United States since the mid-1990s. BDD, an intense preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in one's appearance, appears to have its onset in adolescence or young adulthood and often coexists with other psychiatric conditions such as social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and atypical depression. In the largest study of DSM IV-defined BDD to date, the mean age of onset was 16.4 +/- 6.9 years.8 The following is a typical case history of an adolescent with BDD:

Margaret, a 17 year old Caucasian female, was housebound for three months. Margaret repeatedly told her family that she was ashamed of multiple aspects of her appearance including her "big" nose, "small" breasts, "flat" hair and "bad" skin. In reality, these deformities were minimal or nonexistent. Margaret spent several hours per day scrutinizing her appearance in the mirror and constantly asked her family for reassurance that she looked okay. Her once-active social life dwindled down to nothing, as she routinely avoided dating and social situations. Recently, she decided to begin consulting with plastic surgeons in order to improve her appearance.

The etiology of BDD is unknown, but it is felt to be a combination of biologic and environmental factors. Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a serious psychiatric condition and can have disastrous consequences, including suicide. At its core is a disturbance of body image so profound that the preoccupation comes close to psychosis.

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