Connection between weight, self-esteem linked to teen’s race, gender

May 07, 2007
Among young teens, race and gender affect whether self-esteem is linked to body weight, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have found.

“We know that for many teenagers, how they feel about their bodies and how they feel about themselves are nearly identical,” said Eliana Miller Perrin, M.D., lead study author and an assistant professor of pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine. “We’re trying to figure out whether some teenagers separate the two – body and self. If we can figure that out, we – as practitioners and parents – might be able to help teenagers feel better about themselves.”

Perrin presented the study results May 5 at the Pediatric Academic Societies’ annual meeting in Toronto. Funding for the study, which was part of the UNC-based Teen Media Study, was provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers analyzed data from a survey of media use, health and sexuality among more than 1,000 seventh and eighth graders. The teens answered questions intended to measure their self-perceived attractiveness, self-esteem, depression, desire to lose weight, height and weight, physical activity, athleticism, ethnic identification and media exposure.

The results showed that most teens who reported high body satisfaction also reported high self-esteem. For instance, white girls were seven times more likely to have high self-esteem if they liked their bodes. Black girls were three times as likely to have high self-esteem if they liked their bodies.

For black boys being happy with their bodies was not related to having high self esteem. However, being overweight did mean having lower body satisfaction.

“Our study suggests something unique might be going on for black boys,” Perrin said. “Those who reported being overweight didn’t like their bodies, but they seemed to be able to separate body esteem from self-esteem.”

Many teens in the study who said they wanted to lose weight also reported being dissatisfied with their bodies; this was especially true among white girls, Perrin said.

Photograph of Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik

Photograph of Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik
Photograph of Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

Photograph of Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

“For teens in our study, except black boys, if you like your body, you have high self-esteem and vice versa,” Perrin said. “And if you want to lose weight, you probably don’t like your body whether you are black or white, male or female.”

Perrin’s co-authors, all from Carolina, are Kristin Kenneavy, Kelly L. L’Engle, Cynthia M. Bulik, Penny Gordon-Larsen and Jane D. Brown.

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Teen Media Study website: http://www.unc.edu/depts/jomc/teenmedia

Note: Eliana Perrin can be reached at (919) 966-2504 or eliana_perrin@med.unc.edu.

School of Medicine contact: Stephanie Crayton, (919) 966-2860 or scrayton@unch.unc.edu.

School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu.

News Services contact: Becky Oskin, (919) 962-8596 or becky_oskin@unc.edu.