Tracing the Roots of Problematic Weight Control Among Young Girls

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
January/February 1999 Volume 10, Number 1
©1999 Gürze Books

During the transition from grade school to middle school, problematic eating behaviors begin to emerge among young girls. Natural body changes that come with puberty, including weight gain and increases in body fat, can lead to problems ranging from excessive dieting to full-blown eating disorders.

Also, at about this time, many young girls begin to date and have increased social and academic pressures. In addition, society’s emphasis on thinness makes girls begin to associate success in dating and in life with appearance. To try to achieve model thinness, many begin dieting, fasting, skipping meals, and increasing exercise.

A study to examine risk

Catherine M. Shisslak, PhD, and colleagues examined the relationship between weight-control behaviors and potential risk for disordered eating in a group of 523 elementary school and middle-school girls, aged 9 to 15 years (J Psychosomatic Res 44:301, 1998). Fifty percent of the elementary school girls and 66% of the middle-school girls reported trying to lose weight during the preceding year.

Among the grade-schoolers, greater weight control efforts were predicted by higher body mass index (BMI), lower self-confidence, and greater sensitivity to weight-related peer pressure. Ethnicity, BMI, and parental marital status were also important factors.

Among the middle-school girls, a higher risk of weight-control behaviors was associated with poorer body image, having parents who were divorced and/or separated, greater sensitivity to weight-related peer pressure, greater substance use, and higher BMI. The parents’ marital status and the father’s pressure for thinness also were key factors. Body image was only significant for middle-school girls. According to the authors, the fact that BMI was a significant predictor of excessive dieting among the younger girls while body image was not suggested that the younger girls may not have adopted a thin body image schema.

Two elements: substance use and lack of confidence

Finding that substance use, or use of cigarettes, alcohol, and/or drugs was associated with weight control behaviors among the middle-school girls was consistent with studies showing that substance use/abuse is associated with disordered eating, and particularly with bulimic behavior (Int J Eat Disord 15:11, 1994). Very few elementary school girls reported using such substances.

Identifying that lack of self-confidence was associated with weight-control behaviors among the girls suggests that this may be a precursor to low-self esteem and body dissatisfaction associated with eating disorders in both teenagers and college-age women.

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