Human Kinetics Prof. Peter Crocker looks at how adolescents are affected by idealized images - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 6 | Jun 7, 2007
Girls Stressed by Bodies They Can’t Have
By Lorraine Chan
No wonder girls get weird about their bodies.
For the past 10 years, Prof. Peter Crocker has studied how adolescents experience and view their bodies. More than ever, says Crocker, girls face pressure from within and without to look a certain way.
“One 13-year-old girl told us that a boy in her class was text messaging her that she was fat and should lose some weight,” says Crocker, who teaches at the UBC School of Human Kinetics.
Crocker adds that although adolescent girls realize on an intellectual level that few people resemble the women on TV, or in the magazines, movies and ads, they still want to achieve that idealized image.
“There’s a disconnect between knowing they can’t have that body, but still desiring it,” observes Crocker.
He says this disconnect can lead to “social physique anxiety” (SPA), a psychological term in use since the 1980s. SPA describes the anxiety and distress that ensues when individuals aren’t able to achieve their desired appearance.
Whether teenage girls are resorting to healthy or harmful ways to cope with SPA is the focus of Crocker’s latest study, Coping with Social Physique Anxiety in Adolescence.
Recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, the study’s co-authors are Kent Kowalski, University of Saskatchewan; Diane Mack, Brock University; Catherine Sabiston, McGill University, and Whitney Sedgwick, a registered psychologist at UBC Counseling Services.
The researchers interviewed 31 females between ages 13-18 on their experiences of and ways of coping with SPA. For the most part, the participants relied on non-harmful ways to manage their stress. Few study participants reported harmful measures such as bulimia or laxatives or supplements to increase metabolism.
“The primary strategy for SPA tends to be appearance management,” says Crocker. “The girls talk about using makeup, pushup bras or clothes they consider sexy to accentuate desirable features. Or they would use clothing to hide undesirable features.”
An equally common approach would be to avoid potentially embarrassing situations. “They’d stay away from places like the beach or gym, anywhere they feel their body would be on display.”
When it came to using exercise to change their appearance, it was mostly short term and excessive, says Crocker.
“A girl would look in the mirror and didn’t like the way her stomach looked and do 200 sit ups, or run five to 10 km. It’s not a sustained physical activity program.”
More difficult to measure was the use of dieting since most girls mentioned some form of dietary restraint. “There’s a whole range of ways that girls limit food intake. They’ll skip a meal, or only eat certain foods.”
Between 2003 and 2006, Crocker carried out a longitudinal study with 500 adolescent girls, between the ages 14-17. By Grade 9 or 14-years old, 30-40 per cent of the study participants experienced moderate to high SPA and stayed at that level during the three-year study.
At least 20 per cent experienced high SPA, usually triggered by situations where they feared people would be evaluating and criticizing their physical appearance.
The study showed that even if a young woman has a “normative” body, she may berate herself for the way her calves or breasts look. “It’s potentially problematic the way some young women focus on flaws that no one else sees,” says Crocker.
As the father of a 17-year-old daughter, Crocker says he empathizes with parents who seek ways to offset the barrage of media images. “One step would be to ensure girls are media savvy so they can look critically at the messages they’re receiving.”
Another precaution would be to emphasize success in various domains, “not just being pretty and attractive.”
Lastly, Crocker urges parents to be aware of the types of behaviour and attitudes they themselves model: for example, mothers who urge their daughters to diet.
“Parents think they’re operating in their children’s best interest, but may be generating more anxiety.”
Crocker’s research has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation.