Weight, Weight-Related Aspects of Body Image, and Depression in Early Adolescent Girls

By Rierdan, Jill; Koff, Elissa | Adolescence, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Weight, Weight-Related Aspects of Body Image, and Depression in Early Adolescent Girls


Rierdan, Jill, Koff, Elissa, Adolescence


Body image - the individual, subjective sense of the body - is theorized to be a core component of personality (Freud, 1927). Assumed to be a matter of conscious as well as unconscious apprehension, body image is thought to reflect the combined impact of actual body structure and function, early and continuing body-related experience, lifelong social response to body appearance, and sociocultural values and ideals regarding the body (Fisher, 1990). Body image, thus, is a biopsychosocial construction, partially determined by, but not reducible to, the objective physical body.

Because body image has been viewed as fundamental in personality development, variations in body image have been thought to be related to individual differences in broad aspects of personality and self-experience. Peto (1972), for example, theorized that differences in body image were related to different levels of self-esteem, a normally distributed dimension of personality, and varying degrees of depression, a dimension of abnormal personality.

Peto (1972) focused on maturity of body image in his consideration of psychological vulnerability to depression. In contrast, most empirical investigations relating body image to self-esteem or depression have focused on the valuative aspect of body image, pertaining to body satisfaction. Studies of late adolescents and adults have reported a significant relationship between lesser body satisfaction and lower self-esteem or higher levels of depressive symptomatology (Abrams, Allen, & Gray, 1993; Denniston, Roth, & Gilroy, 1992; Goldberg & Folkins, 1974; Marsella, Shizura, Brennan, & Kameoka, 1981; McCauley, Mintz, & Glenn, 1988; Noles, Cash, & Winstead, 1985; Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1988; Teri, 1982; Tiggemann, 1994).

Further clarification of the relationship between body image and depression seems important for early adolescents, particularly for girls. It is in the early adolescent years that rates of depression increase significantly, with this increase greater for girls than for boys (e.g., Stroufe & Rutter, 1984). Further, not only does the body change dramatically with puberty for both girls and boys (e.g., Lerner, 1987), but for girls it changes away from the cultural ideal of thinness (Faust, 1983): A normal part of girls' pubertal development involves a significant increase in fat, and thus weight (Frisch, 1980; Young, Sipin, & Roe, 1980). Associated with this physical change is the oft-observed decrease in body satisfaction for early adolescent girls (e.g., Koff & Rierdan, 1991), with a prominent focus of this dissatisfaction being weight and parts of the body associated with greater fat deposits (Kirkley & Burge, 1989; Tobin-Richards, Boxer, & Petersen, 1983). This study seeks to clarify hypothesized relationships between weight, weight-related aspects of body image, and depression in early adolescent girls. While empirical findings have confirmed a relationship between global body dissatisfaction and depression among early adolescent girls (Allgood-Merton, Lewinsohn, & Hops, 1990; Alsaker, 1992; Faust, 1987; Hops, Lewinsohn, Andrews & Roberts, 1990; Richards, Casper, & Larson, 1990; Rierdan, Koff, & Stubbs, 1987), it is not yet clear if weight experience per se is related to depressive symptomatology among these girls.

Among the few pertinent studies, Kaplan, Busner, and Pollack (1988) related self-perceived classification of weight to depressive symptoms in a group of 11-18-year olds. They did not focus on early adolescents, whose bodies change most dramatically, nor did they measure and control for actual weight. Rosen, Gross, and Vera (1987) did control for objective weight in their study of high school students, and confirmed a relationship between a wish to change weight - presumably a measure of body image dissatisfaction-and depressive symptoms, with this relationship stronger for girls than for boys. …

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