Poor body image for girls can lead to weight gain

A study shows that negative body image causes weight gain in teen girls over time.

Ryan Faircloth

Girls who think negatively of their bodies are more likely to be overweight — and less likely to take part in physical activities, according to a recent University of Minnesota study.
Published last week, the study showed that overweight teen girls’ perception of their bodies can lead to weight gain over time, though their male peers are less susceptible. 
Now, researchers suggest using positive body image messages to help girls embrace their natural looks.
The study is part of a larger, 17-year-long University report known as Project EAT, which tracks nutritional and physical health in Twin Cities adolescents over time.
The research followed overweight females averaging about 15 years old who reported body image based on satisfaction with 10 different parts of their bodies.
Those who thought positively about their looks gained less weight over time, said Katie Loth, family medicine and community health assistant professor and one of the study’s authors.
Loth said girls with negative body images often suffer from an eating disorder, are more susceptible to weight-gain and are less likely to partake in physical activity.
“When you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s really easy to sit on the sidelines of your life and not be as active,” said Billie Gray, executive director of the Emily Program Foundation, a group that works to educate about the harm of eating disorders.
Gray said she thinks teenage girls can perceive themselves as undesirable based on unrealistic female body types portrayed in the media.
“Very few, if any, of these [media] images are of real people,” Loth said. “The bulk of these images have been photoshopped to the extent that young people aren’t really used to seeing real bodies and what real bodies look like.”
But few of the teenage boys studied suffered from weight gain due to negative body image, she said.
“I don’t think boys are as drawn to the same types of risky weight-control behaviors, and I also don’t think boys’ body satisfaction impacts their desire to engage in physical activity in the same way as it does for young women,” Loth said. 
Switching the conversation to the benefits of physical activity and good nutrition rather than weight could help boost girls’ self-image, Gray said, adding that letting kids know they’re valuable supports better self-care.
University pediatrician and associate professor, Dr. Iris Borowsky, said she follows similar practices when speaking with patients.
“[This research] is very much in line with what we do in the clinical setting, and that is to not focus so much on weight, but to talk about healthy living,” she said.
Borowsky said she advises patients to be active and spend less time at a screen, but only after praising them for their existing healthy habits.
Gray said the recent findings could teach parents to use this kind of positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reminders of weight gain.
“Young people who feel good about themselves are driven to take better care of themselves,” Loth said. “So, if we’re interested in trying to promote health and wellness in young people, we need to do that through promoting positive body satisfaction.”