The Relationship of Dieting to Weight in Adolescents

By Emmons, Lillian | Adolescence, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Relationship of Dieting to Weight in Adolescents

Emmons, Lillian, Adolescence


By the time adolescents become high school seniors they have weathered the dramatic changes that come with puberty, have had years of experience comparing their body size and shape to that of peers and cultural ideals and, in many cases, have experimented with various measures to bring their body into conformance. This makes dieting and nondieting adolescents at this age desirable subjects for a comparison of actual and preferred weights and the relationship of weight to dieting behavior.

Sensitivity to weight and cultural standards begins at an early age. Lerner and Gellert (1969) found in a study of 45 boys and girls, 5.3 to 6.2 years of age, that they could identify themselves according to body type and rate classmates as under, average or overweight at frequencies greater than chance. Children of elementary school age perceive that being overweight is unattractive and is associated with many negative personality traits, such as being handicapped or disabled (Staffieri, 1972; Gellert, Girgus, & Cohen, 1971; Edelman, 1982; Richardson, Goodman, & Hastorf, 1961). By adolescence these views are firmly entrenched (Feldman, Feldman & Goodman, 1988; Brenner & Hinsdale, 1978).

Being self-conscious about body size and shape is exacerbated at puberty because of the variability in timing of maturational events. Boys begin their growth spurt and develop secondary sexual characteristics as early as 10 1/2 or as late as 16 years of age (Maresch, 1964; Reynolds & Wines, 1961), while girls begin as early as 7 1/2 or as late as 11 1/2 years of age (Tanner, 1972). Because the body is the primary focus of concern at this age, adolescents are very self-conscious about their development (McCandless, 1970; Elkind, 1967) and are more likely to take issue with perceived differences in physical characteristics than with social or intellectual ones (Lerner & Karabenick, 1974).

Most of the research on dieting in adolescents has been done with white, or predominantly white samples (Dwyer, Feldman, & Mayer, 1967; Johnson et al., 1983, 1984, 1989, Nylander, 1971; Rosen & Gross, 1987; Whitaker et al., 1989; Wardle & Marsland, 1990). The research presented here documents the relationship of weight to dieting behavior and conceptions of ideal weight in a large sample of black and white, male and female high school students.


A sample of high school students, primarily seniors, was obtained from ten school systems in the Greater Cleveland area. Seventy-two percent of the students enrolled in the schools participated in the study. Students self-identified themselves as 72.3% white, 23.9% black, and 3.8% other racial groups. Only black and white students were retained for the study, a total of 1,269 students.

All students completed a self-administered questionnaire designed for this study to obtain demographic and anthropometric data, information on dieting behavior, and perceptions of ideal body weight. The reliability of data provided by the questionnaires proved satisfactory when checked by semi-structured interviews with 49 of the students.

Certain variables were operationalized so students could be identified as dieters or nondieters. A student was classified as a dieter if she or he reported losing five or more pounds through dieting. Any student not meeting this criterion was classified as a nondieter. More detailed information on the dieting behavior of these students was previously published by Emmons (1992).

Body mass index (BMI) was computed using the height and weight reported by students. Students were divided into four weight groups: underweight (below the 15th percentile), below median weight (15th to 60th percentile), above median weight (50th to 85th percentile), and overweight (85th percentile and over). These weight groups were used to examine the relationship of weight to dieting behavior and preferred weights.

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