Gender Differences in High School Students' Dieting Behavior and Their Correlates

Article excerpt

In this study, we explored the relationships among gender and diet type (weight loss, weight gain, not dieting) on body image perceptions and psychological well-being in a sample of high school students. Our findings showed (1) that young women were more likely to be dieting to lose weight while young men were more likely to be dieting to gain weight and (2) that those high in the drive for thinness were most likely to be dieting to lose weight while those high in the drive for muscularity were most likely to be dieting to gain weight. The data also revealed that dieting to lose weight was associated with reporting significantly more depressive symptoms than dieting to gain weight or not being on a diet at all. The importance of distinguishing between boys' and girls' body image concerns was discussed.

Key Words: gender differences, adolescents, dieting, body image, drive for muscularity

Past research examining gender differences in dieting behavior has shown that adolescent girls are more likely than adolescent boys to be trying to lose weight, and that underweight and normal weight girls are just as likely as overweight girls to be dieting (Rosen & Gross, 1987). At any given time, between 28% and 67% of normal weight adolescent girls are on a diet to lose weight (Huon & Brown, 1986; Kelly & Patten, 1985; Rosen & Gross, 1987), whereas significantly fewer numbers of normal weight adolescent boys are trying to lose weight (Olivardia, Pope, Mangweth, & Hudson, 1995; Rosen & Gross, 1987). Furthermore, girls are more likely than boys to be anorexic, bulimic, and to feel that various parts of their body are too big (Davis & Fox, 1993; Olivardia et al., 1995). The desire to be thinner also is associated with poorer self-esteem and the presence of a greater number of depressive symptoms among women and girls (e.g., Carpenter, Hasin, Allison, & Faith, 2000; Oates-Johnson & DeCourville, 1999).

Based on findings such as these, researchers have focussed almost exclusively on the dieting behaviors and body image perceptions of girls and women, assuming that, because boys and men diet to lose weight less frequently than girls and women, they -- boys and men -- are not as concerned with their bodies (e.g., Pine, 2001). However, this is not the case. What research there is suggests that boys and men are just as concerned with their bodies, but that most researchers have been asking them the wrong questions. That is, because the social standard of bodily attractiveness for girls and women is about being thin, researchers ask them about their feelings of being fat and their attempts to lose weight (i.e., a drive for thinness). In addition, they also try to measure the extent to which these attitudes and behaviors put girls and women at risk for clinical eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa and bulimia).

The social standard of bodily attractiveness for boys and men, on the other hand, is a muscular mesomorphic shape (Mishkind, Rodin, Silberstein, & Striegel-Moore, 1986), focussing the members of this gender on what McCreary and Sasse (2000) refer to as the drive for muscularity. The social desirability of the muscular mesomorphic body shape for males has been demonstrated in several ways: (a) men will often pick the muscular mesomorphic shape as their ideal (e.g., Pope et al., 2000); (b) adolescent and adult males believe that women look for muscularity in their ideal man (Cohn & Adler, 1992; Jacobi & Cash, 1994; O'Dea & Abraham, 1999; (c) women actually are more attracted to men with a well-muscled torso (Maisey et al., 1999), albeit not as muscular as men think (Pope et al., 2000); and (d) when young, heterosexual men are presented with a picture of a sexually attractive woman, their body image changes and they become focussed on their lack of physical bulk (Lavine, Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999). Finally, approximately 80% of adolescent boys and girls believe that muscularity is an important feature in the ideal body prototype for teenage boys (Jones, 2001). …