Middle school dilemma: Girls’ body image affected by older peers

Contextualizing ‘Student Body’: Is Exposure to Older Students Associated with Body Dissatisfaction in Female Early Adolescents

From Psychology of Women Quarterly

The media is highly criticized for contributing to body image issues in adolescents. However, this study finds a different source for body dissatisfaction among young girls: older girls at school. A research team surveyed 1,536 5th through 8th-grade female students attending schools with different grade groupings. eating habits, attitudes about appearance, and feelings of body consciousness. “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.” They also discussed changes that can be made to the education system to delay younger students’ exposure to older grade levels.


Research on teens’ body dissatisfaction documents the role of proximal social influences (e.g., peers and family) and distal social influences (e.g., mass media) but largely ignores intermediate contextual factors such as school environment. Is there a link between individual body image and student body? We assessed drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, thin-ideal internalization, and body objectification in an ethnically diverse sample of 1,536 female students educated in U.S. school districts varying in the degree to which younger students (fifth and sixth graders) are educated alongside older students (seventh and eighth graders). We studied three different grade groupings: junior high (Grades K–6 housed together/Grades 7–8 housed together), middle school (K–5/6–8), and extended middle school (K–4/5–8). As predicted, fifth and sixth graders attending schools with older students reported more negative body experiences than their age peers attending schools with younger students; similar effects were evident among seventh graders who had been educated with older peers during fifth and sixth grade. Our findings highlight the importance of considering contextual factors in understanding young women’s body image.

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Article Details
Jaine Strauss, Jacklyn M. Sullivan, Christine E. Sullivan, Stephen J. Sullivan, and Chloe E. Wittenberg
Contextualizing the “Student Body”: Is Exposure to Older Students Associated With Body Dissatisfaction in Female Early Adolescents? Psychology of Women Quarterly 0361684314550407, first published on September 18, 2014 doi:10.1177/0361684314550407

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