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Girls Think They're Fatter Than They Are

7/24/2003      

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

THURSDAY, July 24 (HealthDayNews) -- As if being a teenage girl isn't hard enough, it turns out that girls worry about their weight even when there's nothing to worry about.

A University of Delaware study has found that, when asked to pick a silhouette of a figure that most closely resembled their bodies, teenage girls chose figures that represented weights that were 11 pounds heavier, on average, than what they had described as their ideal weight. Yet in real life, the girls were only three pounds over that ideal weight, on average.

The boys in the study also chose silhouettes that weighed 13 more pounds, on average, than their true weight. But in adding on the pounds, they were moving closer to their ideal weight, which averaged 10 pounds more than they weighed.

"The boys think they're heavier than they are, but they want to be heavier. They all want to look like Marvel Comic characters," says study author Michael Peterson, director of the graduate health promotion program at the University of Delaware. "But the girls all want to lose weight. You look at television, and they say that the camera adds 10 pounds. Well, the girls see themselves as 10 pounds heavier than they are, as if the camera lens is turned on them."

The findings appear in the July/August issue of American Journal of Health Behavior.

Peterson says the reasons why such a dramatic gender discrepancy in body image exists are hard to assess.

"It's very complex. There isn't an easy answer. Girls are socialized to see themselves in a certain way. The research literature talks about having less curves being more desirable, and that you gain power in society by having a skinnier image. A lot of these things affect girls' perceptions of themselves," Peterson says.

Peterson's study was unique in how specifically it was able to track the teens' body images, he says. Most work in this field relies on having study participants choose silhouettes that represent different body types, but the silhouettes, usually from seven to 12 in number, are designed simply by size and have no statistical basis.

But in the latest study, Peterson and his colleagues used silhouettes designed by the Canadian Dietetic Association, which includes 27 silhouettes, each representing one body mass image (BMI) unit.

"The benefit of having 27 figures is that there is a greater array of responses, and the data is more sensitive -- you can connect each one into a BMI score -- and provides a better measure of people's body image perceptions. Also for researchers, it is a more user-friendly way of measuring body image perceptions across a population," Peterson says.

Cynthia Sass, a dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, has used the silhouette tests with seven figures numerous times to assess body images with private clients, at seminars and at education outreach programs at colleges.

"People focused on body images really scrutinize these silhouettes and often will say, 'I feel in between these,'" she says. "Having more silhouettes is definitely better. They would have a good ability to compare and identify what they see as ideal."

A distorted body image is a separate problem from that of health concerns about being overweight, she adds.

"It's important for all girls, women, and boys to have a realistic image of their own body as well as a realistic image of what is healthy. Regardless of size or weight, a distorted body image is a problem. I've seen girls who were overweight with a distorted body image begin starving themselves, compulsively exercising, purging, using laxatives or ephedrine, which is extremely dangerous," she says.

For the study, Peterson tested 172 adolescents, aged 13 to 17, two different times, each time asking them to pick a silhouette that matched their idea of how they looked and then to pick a figure that matched their ideal look. Translating the BMI index into pounds and adjusting the weights to standard heights of 5-foot-5 for the girls and 6 feet for the boys, the researchers found the girls, on average, saw themselves as weighing 141 pounds, which was more than their self-reported average weight of 133 pounds and considerably more than their desired weight of 130 pounds.

The boys also perceived themselves as weighing more than they did, 185 pounds versus 172 pounds, but they wanted to weigh more. They picked as their ideal weight, on average, 182 pounds.

The problem of girls' poor body images is of increasing interest and concern to researchers as more data confirms that girls, beginning as young as age 11, begin to fear they are too fat. A 2002 study of more than 2,000 pre-teens in Glasgow, Scotland, for instance, found the percentage of boys worried about being overweight dropped from 30 percent to 23 percent from the ages of 11 to 15, while overweight fears for girls of the same age jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent during the same period.

"Boys seem to have a much healthier self-concept about their bodies than girls," Peterson says, and his hope is that more precise testing like his will improve the data available to scientists to address why this is so.

"We hope to use this test in conjunction with other tests as a way of predicting this type of behavior," he says.

More information

The Nemours Foundation talks to teens about body images and self esteem. For a chart to see if you are at a healthy weight, visit the American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Michael Peterson, Ed.D., associate professor, Department of Health and Exercise Sciences, and director, graduate health promotion program, University of Delaware, Newark; Cynthia Sass, dietician, Tampa, Fla., and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; July/August 2003 American Journal of Health Behavior

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