Body image concerns start earlier for rural teen girls

Negative body perceptions are more likely to start at puberty for teenage girls from rural and regional areas, but at a later age for city girls, according to a Victoria University study.

The findings from surveys of more than 700 teenage girls in Victoria are important for targeting and timing public health programs to address issues associated with negative body image. These include low self-esteem, disordered eating, and low physical activity, said Dr Melinda Craike.

Her longitudinal study surveyed girls in Year 7 and Year 11 over a three-year reporting period. The girls were from randomly selected secondary schools in Melbourne, and in regional and rural Victoria.

When asked whether their bodies were too thin, too fat or just right, nearly 40% of all girls claimed to be too fat. A similar percentage indicated that they were either on, or should be on a diet. Older girls were more likely to be on a diet than younger girls, regardless of where they lived.

But in Victoria’s rural and regional areas – where previous research shows higher rates of obesity compared to metropolitan areas – a higher proportion of Year 7 girls were dissatisfied with their bodies compared to their city counterparts.

“The study suggests that teenage girls from outside urban areas start putting pressure on themselves about their bodies at a younger age compared to city girls,” she said.

While body dissatisfaction increased for all participants over the three years regardless of where they lived, the trend was more pronounced for the set of Year 11s. This may be explained by the prolonged influence of media and other external forces that promote unattainable ideals of beauty, she said.

Dr Craike said this finding suggests that intervention programs that generally target young teens could be expanded to include older teenage girls. This would hopefully aid the girls' transition from school to adulthood, with potential roles for government, parents, coaches, and the media.

Interestingly, all participants had stable impressions of their physical appearance that did not vary from year to year during the three-year period when asked if they thought they were good looking.

Nearly 60% thought they were of average appearance, about 25% thought they were above average, and the remainder thought they were below average.

“The stability of this perception suggests teenage girls understand and accept that physical looks cannot be readily changed. This is in contrast to their views about body size, which they believe can be more easily altered with dieting, more exercise, or a change in eating and lifestyle,” she said.

Dr Craike said trends from the study could be applied elsewhere in Australia.

Dr Melinda Craike is a senior lecturer in exercise and health psychology in VU’s College of Sport and Exercise Science and a research associate at VU’s Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL).

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