Onset of Disordered Eating Attitudes and Behaviors in Early Adolescence: Interplay of Pubertal Status, Gender, Weight, and Age

By O'Dea, Jennifer A.; Abraham, Suzanne | Adolescence, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Onset of Disordered Eating Attitudes and Behaviors in Early Adolescence: Interplay of Pubertal Status, Gender, Weight, and Age


O'Dea, Jennifer A., Abraham, Suzanne, Adolescence


ABSTRACT

The interplay of puberty, gender, weight, and age in regard to body image and disordered eating behaviors and attitudes was investigated in a sample of early adolescents. It was found that, after menarche, females had increased personal expectations and were dissatisfied with weight/shape changes. They wanted to reduce their weight and between-meal eating (which was associated with increased feelings of inadequacy, loss of control, and decreased self-esteem). Young postmenarcheal females who were higher achievers and had higher trait anxiety were more likely to have lower weight. Young males at puberty desired to build up their bodies, believing that appearance was important to their sexual appeal. They were also more willing to form close relationships. Postpubertal males felt most in control of their lives, had the highest self-esteem, and were more trusting of their body cues. Overall, high achieving, more anxious postmenarcheal females were at greatest risk for eating disturbances. These results indicate that the interaction of pubertal status and gender must be considered when developing intervention programs.

During early adolescence, females who are more pubertally developed and have attained menarche are more likely than their premenarcheal peers to engage in disordered eating (Killen et at, 1992; O'Dea & Abraham, 1995; Cauffman & Steinberg, 1996; Swarr & Richards, 1996). Further, the increase in body fat that occurs during puberty, accompanied by heightened body dissatisfaction, is related to the development of eating problems (Attie & Brooks-Gunn, 1989; Graber et al., 1994; Swarr & Richards, 1996). Other factors, such as age, weight, and gender have also been associated with disordered eating behavior (Paxton, 1993; O'Dea, Abraham, & Heard, 1996; Nowak et al., 1996; Davies & Furnham, 1986; Salmons et al., 1988; Story et al., 1991). Much less is known about the interplay of these variables in the onset of disordered eating attitudes and behavior.

The aim of this study was to improve our understanding of the precipitants of eating disorders. The interactions of pubertal status, gender, age, and weight were investigated in relation to young males' and females' eating behavior and attitudes, body image, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.

METHOD

Participants

One hundred seventy-three male and 297 female students in Years 7 and 8 at two secondary schools in Sydney, Australia, served as subjects. One was a coeducational public school and the other was a private girls school. They drew students from the same catchment area, and the demographic characteristics of their students were similar.

Instruments

Weight and height were measured. Demographic data and information on weight increases and decreases, exercise patterns, and eating behavior were collected via questionnaire. Students rated their appearance on a scale from 0 to 10 (10 being perfect), as well as how they thought their best friend would rate them using the same scale. To measure perception of body weight, students were asked to indicate whether they thought of themselves as being "too fat," "about right," or "too thin." Students were also asked whether they desired to be "a lot heavier," "a little heavier," "present weight," "a little lighter," or a "lot lighter." The students completed the Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI; Garner, Olmstead, & Polivy, 1983), the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger, Gorsuch, & Lushene, 1970), and the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck et al., 1961).

Procedure

Students anonymously completed the instruments in their classrooms (under the supervision of the first author). They were informed that there were no right or wrong answers. Students who were absent on the day of data collection completed the instruments at a later time.

Pubertal status was self-reported.

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