Researcher: Body image problems now the norm for girls and common among boys starting by age 8

New research published in Development and Psychopathology has found that physical maturation and teasing predict the growth of appearance-related anxiety in adolescent girls and boys in Australia.

The study found a “steep growth” in appearance-related anxiety symptoms in the first half of the teenage years.

“Growing up in the 70s and 80s, appearance was always a critical concern among my friends. We talked continuously about everything to do with appearance and much of the teasing was related to not looking right, not wearing the right clothes, eating too much. I was in the ‘popular’ crowd, so this was particularly prominent,” said the study’s corresponding author, Melanie J. Zimmer-Gembeck of Griffith University and Menzies Health Institute of Queensland.

“Today, we see this elevated to the level of obsession among even more young people, with concerns about appearance topping many list of adolescents’ worries. Our focus has now shifted from ‘typical’ body image concerns that seem to occur among almost all girls and many boys, to understanding when it interferes with day-to-day normal living.”

Nearly all of the girls in the study reported an increase in appearance-related anxiety symptoms over time.

“We now assume that body image problems will be the norm for girls and women, and will be commonly found among boys and men starting by about age 8 or 9 years,” Zimmer-Gembeck explained. “Our research shows that these problems are not minor and, for about 30% of the girls and 15% of the boys between the ages of 10 and 15, this can become an obsession — with frequent checking of appearance, social comparisons, anxiety about not looking right, and trying to cover up or hide when concerned about how they look.”

The longitudinal study tracked 387 boys and girls in Grades 5, 6, or 7 for 2.5 years. The participants attended schools in an urban area of Australia. The researchers found that physical maturation combined with appearance-related teasing was a significant predictor of appearance-related anxiety symptoms.

“Those young people who seem to be most obsessive and anxious about their appearance are more likely to have physically matured early and are more teased about their appearance by their classmates or their parents,” Zimmer-Gembeck told PsyPost. “This teasing can be toxic even when quite minor or intermittent.”

The researchers found that physical attractiveness was unrelated to appearance-related anxiety symptoms. Weight, as measured by body mass index, only appeared to play a small role — and only for girls.

Zimmer-Gembeck told PsyPost there are still many more questions that need to be answered.

“We do not yet know much about what can protect against the development of obsessions and anxiety about appearance,” she explained. “How do young people cope with these concerns? What can friends or parents do to protect against these problems? We also do not yet know enough about whether some characteristics of the source of the teasing about appearance have a larger negative impact on young people compared to other characteristics. For example, is teasing more toxic when it comes from your friends or is focused on some body parts or aspects of appearance more than others? Is sexual teasing and harassment important to consider separately from other forms of teasing?”

In severe cases, appearance-related anxieties can develop into body dysmorphic disorder.

“This is such a very important issue for young people and for society,” Zimmer-Gembeck told PsyPost. “Concerns about appearance, weight, looks and acceptance or rejection because of appearance are the norm. As developmental and clinical psychologists, we often treat these concerns and anxieties as individual problems, but they stem from early physical development and the social environments where young people spend their time — online and with their friends at or outside school. Thus, it is really a complicated social problem that deserves our attention at many levels.”

The study, “Girls’ and boys’ trajectories of appearance anxiety from age 10 to 15 years are associated with earlier maturation and appearance-related teasing“, was also co-authored by Haley J. Webb, Lara J. Farrell and Allison M. Waters.