New research finds middle schools that include fifth through eighth grades may set the stage for dissatisfied body image among younger girls.
Researchers found that although the media is highly criticized for contributing to body image issues in adolescents, the source for body dissatisfaction among young girls is often older girls at school.
The research is published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.
Dr. Jaine Strauss, a professor of psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and colleagues surveyed 1,536 fifth through eighth grade female students attending schools with different grade groupings.
Some fifth and sixth graders attended school with older students (i.e. in districts that follow the “middle school” model) and others attended school with younger students (i.e. in districts where seventh and eighth graders attend a “junior high” apart from younger grades).
The students completed three questionnaires asking about their eating habits, attitudes about appearance, and feelings of body consciousness.
The researchers, which also included a high school teacher and two high school students, found that female fifth and sixth graders who were educated alongside older girls reported a greater desire to be thin as well as less satisfaction with and more self-consciousness about their bodies.
For example, fifth graders who attended school with sixth through eighth graders had a mean body dissatisfaction score that was 1.7 times higher than girls in the same grade who attended a typical elementary school.
“Elevated levels of body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, thin-ideal internalization, body surveillance, and body shame may undermine young teens’ social, emotional, and academic well-being both during the early teen years and in later life,” the researchers commented.
“Although body image tends to decline as girls move through adolescence, this study suggests that school grade groupings may influence the pace and timing of this decline.”
The researchers discussed changes that can be made to the education system to delay younger students’ exposure to older grade levels.
“The ideal solution, of course, would be to eliminate the body travails of students of all ages; if older teens were more satisfied with their bodies, then exposure to older schoolmates would be benign.”
Source: SAGE Publications