Physical Activity and Body Image of Female Adolescents: Moving toward the 21st Century

By Rhea, Deborah J. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, May 1998 | Go to article overview
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Physical Activity and Body Image of Female Adolescents: Moving toward the 21st Century

Rhea, Deborah J., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance

Tremendous strides have been made to involve female adolescents in physical activity and athletics. Since the passage of Title IX (1972) legislation, a number of organizations, including the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport and the Women's Sports Foundation, have identified and publicized the benefits of physical activity and the importance of equal participation of girls and boys. Although these efforts have helped to increase participation in sports and physical activity among females of all ages, two growing trends exist among adolescent females: to become either dramatically more inactive or more involved in extreme dieting behaviors and extensive exercise (Sundgot-Borgen, 1994). These trends are often associated with body image and self-esteem.

Both trends are dangerous, and we, as physical educators and coaches, have the influence to change them. Before a change can be made, it is critical to better understand female adolescents. We know much more about adolescents than we did even two decades ago. This better understanding has come about through research efforts publicized in reports such as Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (1996) and the report on Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (1997). In order to continue increasing the level of participation by girls in sport and physical activity, we must address the issues confronting female adolescents as reported in publications such as these and make the necessary changes to move us successfully into the 21st century.

The purpose of this article is to identify some of the important issues surrounding female adolescents' body image (e.g., puberty, eating disorders, and obesity) and to provide guidelines in the physical education and sport settings that will enhance continued growth of physical activity and sport in the lives of female adolescents.

Psychological Impact of Puberty

In order to support the increase of girls and women in sport and physical activity, we need to understand the impact that growth and development has on adolescent females. As adolescent females reach puberty and start to develop secondary sex characteristics (e.g., breasts and broader hips), their bodies begin to have a higher percentage of fat and their self-esteem begins to diminish. Consequently, studies have shown that adolescent females are generally more negative about their bodies and are concerned with physical beauty and maintaining an ideal, thin shape (as identified by media and societal images) (Galgan & Mable, 1986; Gill, 1995). Studies also report that females spend a great deal of time worrying about how other people will respond to them (Greif & Ulman, 1982). Generally speaking, adolescent females are most concerned about being too tall or too fat, and many well-proportioned young girls may compensate for perceived physical inadequacies by slouching, wearing baggy clothes, or trying a seemingly endless number of fad diets. Individuals with warped body images and the associated low self-esteem lay the groundwork for weight preoccupation and disordered eating.

Body Image and Disordered Eating

One key problem regarding body image lies in the conflict between perception and reality (President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Report, 1997). Even when evidence to the contrary shows that females are not overweight, many females perceive themselves to be overweight. Such preoccupation with physique can lead to dangerous attempts to control weight, including excessive levels of physical activity. As Polivy (1994) suggested, "There is a range of compulsiveness connected to physical activity, with some individuals crossing a hypothetical line between what is normal and acceptable and what is destructive or pathological" (p. 883).

Coaches may require workouts that exceed what is considered an acceptable level of activity because of the competitive nature of the sport.

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Physical Activity and Body Image of Female Adolescents: Moving toward the 21st Century


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