Teens may feel dissatisfied with the way their body looks. This dislike of one’s physical appearance affects up to 61% of teens worldwide. It has been identified as a risk factor for eating disorders, unhealthy behaviours, and poor mental health. In fact, teens who are unhappy with their physical appearance are at significantly heightened risk of depression by the time they reach early adulthood, reveals a study published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Based on an analysis of the data, it was discovered that body dissatisfaction at the age of 14 predicted mild and severe depressive episodes in boys and girls by the time they were 18 years old.
The results demonstrate that boys are more likely than girls to have severe depression, with the extent of the elevated risk ranging from 50% to 285%.
Few studies have examined this issue among young males and Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997) to consider the influence of the internet, technology, and social media. Most of the published research on body dissatisfaction and depression has been conducted in the US.
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a population-based long-term monitoring study of women and their children born in 1991/92 and living in Somerset, England, provided the researchers with approximately 4000 participants to help close these knowledge gaps.
Girls were more dissatisfied than boys
On a 5-point scale, where 0 represents “extremely dissatisfied” and 5 represents “extremely satisfied,” 3753 teenagers were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their physical appearance at the age of 14. They were asked to rate their weight, figure, body build, and specific areas, such as their breasts, stomach, waist, thighs, buttocks, hips, legs, face, and hair.
Overall, the bodies of the boys (1675) and the girls (2078) were only marginally satisfactory. However, girls were less happy than boys.
Girls typically liked their hair and hips but disliked their thighs, stomach, and weight. Boys typically didn’t care about their hair, weight, or legs, but they did have issues with their body type, stomach, and hips.
Around 1 in 4 (27%) girls and 1 in 7 (14%) boys reported being unhappy with their figure, and nearly 1 in 3 (32%) girls and 1 in 7 (14%) boys reported being unhappy with their weight.
Girls were more likely to experience episodes of depression than the boys
At the age of 18, depressive symptoms were formally evaluated with the CIS-R. Compared to boys, girls were more likely to go through depressive episodes.
Compared to 1 in 20 (5%) of the males, 1 in 10 (10%) of the girls reported having at least one minor depressive episode. Nearly 7% of the girls and nearly 3% of the boys reported having at least one moderately severe depressive episode, while only 1.5% of the girls and less than 1% (0.7%) of the boys experienced severe depressive episode(s).
Analysis of the data revealed that body dissatisfaction at the age of 14 predicted depressive episodes of all degrees of severity among the girls, and mild and severe depressive episodes among the boys by the time they were 18 years old.
Even after accounting for depressive symptoms at the age of 14, these results persisted.
Each rise in the girls’ body dissatisfaction measure at age 14 was linked to a higher chance of having at least one mild (63%), moderate (67%) or severe (84%) depressive episode by the time they turned 18.
But its impact on severe depressive episodes was stronger among the boys
The severity of the depressive episode enhanced the association’s strength.
Body dissatisfaction had a similar effect on mild depressive episodes in both boys and girls, but it had a higher effect on severe depressive episodes in boys.
Boys who scored higher on the body dissatisfaction measure at age 14 had a higher chance of having at least one mild (50%) or severe (285%) depressive episode when they were 18.
“It is possible that in the era of social media and increasing pressures on body ideals, male adolescents have also become sensitive to [idealised body image] pressures, which may translate into later depressive episodes,” suggest the researchers.
The lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in the ALSPAC data and the absence of any data on sexual orientation, according to the researchers, may restrict the findings’ capacity to be applied more widely.
The questionnaires’ assessment of body dissatisfaction was biased towards ideals of female attractiveness.
Nevertheless, they conclude: “These findings demonstrate that body dissatisfaction should be considered as a public health issue of pressing concern. It is highly prevalent among young people in the general population and has an increasing incidence; the findings indicate that reducing body dissatisfaction might be an effective strategy to reduce mental health issues.”
Materials provided by BMJ. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Anna Bornioli, Helena Lewis-Smith, Amy Slater, Isabelle Bray. Body dissatisfaction predicts the onset of depression among adolescent females and males: a prospective study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2020; jech-2019-213033 DOI: 10.1136/jech-2019-213033
BMJ. “Teen dislike of physical appearance strong predictor of depression in early adulthood.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 December 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201207195131.htm>.
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