Body Image in Adolescence: Cross-Cultural Research-Results of the Preliminary Phase of a Quantitative Survey

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INTRODUCTION

Just as the cognitive perception of the body, which is closely linked to muscular and kinesthetic sensations, secures the integrity of the body inside space, the psychological image of the body seals the bond of individuals with time (Bruchon-Schweitzer, 1986-1987, Dolto, 1984). However, the feeling of temporal continuity, although a condition of health and well-being, may also be at the root of developmental problems (Alvin, 1982; Birraux, 1990; Spyckerelle et al., 1991). Indeed, each time important modifications occur in the body (even natural ones, as in adolescence), the psychological perception of the body must be modified as well. The resistance to change, the need to maintain the permanence of the internal representation of the body and the inability to elaborate a new self-image, may result in a discrepancy between the imaginary/ideal self, and the real self (Canestrari, 1980; Magri, & Muscianesi-Picardi, 1980; Lebovici, 1987; Maidi, 1987; Tomkiewicz, 1981).

Body image lies at the heart of adolescence. Adolescents' search for an identity and a gender role is the consequence of a dialectic between the well-known body of childhood, which is fantasized and elaborated from a succession of life events, and the unknown, mysterious, sexually mature body, brought about by puberty changes (Birraux, 1990). Adaptation to the bodily changes of puberty exerts a strong influence on adolescents' social adjustment, psychological well-being, and health behaviors. Many studies of body image in adolescence have analyzed the extent to which boys and girls manage to adjust to the bodily transformations of puberty, and to overcome the personal and relational difficulties which may ensue from these changes (Ferron et al., 1993).

The length and pace of puberty exert a significant influence on the experience of the evolution of body image (Frank & Cohen, 1979; Gaddis & Brooks-Gunn, 1985; Kelly & Menking, 1979; Kumar & Chansoria, 1984). A delay in the starting up of this maturing process does not seem to cause serious psychological and relational difficulties, except when the principal symptom of this delay is considerable retardation of height growth (Apter et al., 1981; Dwyer & Mayer, 1969). On the other hand, early onset of the physiological changes may be linked, among boys, to involvement in delinquent behaviors, and among girls, to the emergence of important adjustment problems (Algan, 1980; Duke-Duncan et al., 1985; Dwyer & Mayer, 1969; Susman, Nottleman, & Inoff-Germain, 1985).

Stereotypes about the male and female body images which are the most aesthetically appreciated in Western societies seem to be interpreted and integrated in a very strict way by most adolescents (Rierdan & Koff, 1980). Since early childhood, boys express a preference for the mesomorph type of male figure (Lerner, Karabenick, & Meisels, 1975; Staffieri, 1967). When they reach adolescence, they aspire toward it and judge themselves negatively if their physical appearance falls short of this ideal (Jovanovic, Lerner, & Lerner, 1989; Lerner & Korn, 1972). Through the media, girls are subject to highly valued images of an extremely thin female body, and very often react negatively to the natural modifications of their figure due to puberty (Brenner & Hinsdale, 1978; Staffieri, 1972). Among some girls, the desire to change their looks associated with a drop in their self-esteem, may herald the onset of eating disorders (Casper & Offer, 1990; Davies & Furnham, 1986; Lundholm & Littrell, 1986; Richards et al., 1990). In some cases, these disorders may evolve to a real pathology, such as anorexia or bulimia (Fowler, 1989; Grant & Fodor, 1986; Ledoux & Choquet, 1991).

The fact that boys globally express more satisfaction and pride in their changing body than do girls, is closely related to another basic difference in the way the genders experience puberty. …