Adolescent Body Mass Indices and Self-Perception

By Pritchard, Mary E.; King, Sondra L. et al. | Adolescence, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview
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Adolescent Body Mass Indices and Self-Perception

Pritchard, Mary E., King, Sondra L., Czajka-Narins, Dorice M., Adolescence

Adolescence is a period of rapid physical growth accompanied by profound emotional and psychological change. It is a time when peer group norms and societal expectations play a major role in the development of self-concept. One cultural expectation of adolescents in the United States is physical attractiveness, which is partially defined as being thin. This is widely modeled in the media, advertising, and elsewhere; in fact, this "expectation" may be viewed as an indoctrination (Andersen, 1994).

Adolescents are particularly concerned about their appearance because dating begins at this age and many will choose marital partners. In a study of students in two secondary schools, one private and the other public, in a large metropolitan area, self-perceptions of body weight were found to be predictive of attitudes about weight and dating. Male students were found to be less tolerant of overweight partners than were female students, reporting less comfort in dating overweight persons (Sobal, Nicolopoulos, & Lee, 1995).

Thin and fat can be defined in several ways, but the definition of each is of major importance and can vary by gender. Many studies have shown that females are more stigmatized by obesity than are males (Fallon, 1990), female adolescents prefer to weigh less (Eisele, Hertsgaard, & Light, 1986), and dissatisfaction with body measurements increases between the ages of 12 and 18 (Davies & Furnham, 1986). Females are exposed to greater pressures to make their body appearance conform to media ideals than are males. Even health care professionals, such as medical doctors, tend to rate more girls than boys as obese, irrespective of their relative weight (Moynihan et al., 1986). Female students in a secondary school reported being encouraged to lose weight more often than were the male students (Sobal et al., 1995). Overemphasis on thinness, preceding and during adolescence, may contribute to potentially harmful weight-management practices and eating disorders (Berg, 1992; Emmons, 1992; Killen et al., 1986).

Ethnic differences in perceptions of overweight have been found to be related to eating disorders (Gustavson et al., 1990, 1993). African-American adolescents are less likely than Latino or white students to judge themselves overweight (Centers for Disease Control, 1991). African-American and white women have different perspectives on body size, with higher weight connoting power for African-Americans (O'Barr, 1994).

One of the limitations of most studies of self-perceptions and attitudes toward weight is small sample size, resulting in underrepresentation of certain socioeconomic and ethnic groups. The data base used in this study provided an opportunity to examine self-perceptions and attitudes in a sample that reflects the whole population of high school students in the United States. The purposes of this study were to (1) determine the relationship between adolescents' perceptions of their weight status and weight status defined using Quetelet's body mass index (BMI); (2) determine the importance of BMI as a predictor of perceived-weight status, controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity; and (3) explore the role of BMI as a predictor of self-concept, controlling for gender, age, and ethnicity.


Sample and Variables

Data used in the study were from the sophomore and senior cohorts of the High School and Beyond (HSB) study of a highly stratified sample of students in over 1,100 high schools in the United States (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1986a, 1986b). Data were collected and processed by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) for the United States Department of Education, Center for Education Statistics, and are a part of the National Educational Longitudinal Studies (NELS) program. The NELS program was developed "to study longitudinally the educational, vocational, and personal development of high school students, and the personal, familial, social, institutional, and cultural factors that may affect development" (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1986a, p.

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