Teens' Distorted Body Image May Lead To Unhealthy Behaviors
July 17, 2003

(Center for the Advancement of Health) -- High school girls tend to see themselves as 11 pounds over their ideal body weight while boys perceive their current and ideal body images as almost the same, according to a new study.

How teenagers think about their body images involves more than vanity, say Michael Peterson, Ed.D., and colleagues of the University of Delaware, writing in the July-August issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.

"The adolescent infatuation with the cultural icon of thinness has contributed to an array of unhealthy behaviors," says Peterson. These include poor eating patterns, preoccupation with food and self, extreme dieting, lower self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and general physical and mental ill health.

Understanding how adolescents perceive their bodies can have practical consequences, Peterson says. Health professionals can address questions of body dissatisfaction to help young people avoid poor health behavior and reduce risk of associated illnesses.

Peterson tested 215 high schoolers at two different times by showing them a range of silhouettes based on body mass index, a standard measure of body shape that relates height to weight. For convenience, Peterson and colleagues translated the BMI figures into pounds, and then adjusted weights to standard heights -- 5 feet 5 inches for a girl and 6 feet for a boy. He asked the students to pick the silhouette that most closely matched their perception of their current appearance, select their ideal body image and then list their actual current weight and height.

On average, the girls in Peterson's study perceived themselves as heavier than they really were but wanted to be thinner. They saw themselves as weighing 141 pounds (assuming a height of 5 feet 5 inches), more than their self-reported actual average weight of 133 pounds and even more than their desired weight of 130 pounds. This meant that while they were only three pounds over their ideal weight, they saw themselves as much heavier -- 11 pounds above their ideal.

Boys, on the other hand, perceived themselves as heavier than they were but they wanted to be heavier, too. They actually weighed an average of 172 pounds, but perceived themselves, on average, as weighing 185 pounds. This was very close to their desired weight of 182 pounds -- more than they weighed in reality but much closer to their ideal.

"Males' current and ideal body image perceptions were almost identical," Peterson says. "In contrast, females tended to overestimate their body size, so they pursue an ideal much slimmer that their perceived current one and so feel dissatisfied."

Peterson says his study used a much more sophisticated set of test images than previous surveys, giving the students a more finely graded set of choices and giving the researchers a way to more accurately evaluate the responses.