The Science of Body Esteem

To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”  Simone de Beauvoir

As children make that awkward transition from adolescence to young adulthood, the sense of identity they develop often depends on how they see themselves in comparison to those around them. According to Erik Erikson’s  theory of psychosocial development, the period from age twelve to eighteen can be critical in the development of personal identity.  Not only are adolescents learning to become more independent of parental control but they also learn how to  interact with other people their age. Successfully navigating this stage in life allows for a healthy development into young adulthood and the formation of long-term attachments.  

But there is more than psychological development at work during these critical years. As adolescents pass through puberty. they need to come to terms with how their bodies are changing. Along with this sexual maturity, their developing brains also lead to greater cognitive capabilities and the perceived need to take on adult roles as soon as possible.  This means dealing with new pressures and social standards as well.  Personal grooming and a need to look as attractive as possible becomes far more important as a way of ensuring that they will be accepted by others.

As a result, adolescents may find their status with others their own age being determined by their sexual development as well as changes in body weight, physical height, and/or muscle development.  It is also during this same period that some adolescents may begin recognizing that their sexual interests don’t quite correspond with what others are reporting (e,g., same-sex attractions).  While they may look to parents or trusted adults for advice, adolescents are also under pressure to make their own decisions about how to think and behave, as well as how to interact with other people their age.  All of this leads to increasing scrutiny over just about every aspect of an adolescent’s life, including physical appearance and sexuality. Which makes how young people regard their own bodies a vital part of developing healthy self-esteem.   

A new research study published in the journal Developmental Psychology explores the role of body image in the development of personal identity through adolescence and young adulthood.  Sara C. Nelson of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a team of co-researchers used data from a large Swedish longitudinal study to identify how perceptions of body image evolves between the ages of 10 and 24. The longitudinal study began in the year 2000 with 967 Swedish children ten years of age and continued every three years until they had reached the age of 24.  Females made up 53 to 57 percent of the sample at each time point.

Along with demographic information,  participants completed specialized surveys measuring psychosocial functioning at different stages in life.They also provided information on height and weight from which  body-mass index (BMI) was computed at each time point. The study also included surveys to measure participant mental health status as well as level of self esteem, including body esteem (how they viewed their bodies).   For the purpose of the study, the researchers focused on three specific aspects of body esteem:

  • Appearance esteem, or degree of satisfaction participants had with their personal appearance.  This was measured in the study using a ten-item subscale with items such as ““I like what I see when I look in the mirror” 
  • Weight esteem, or degree of satisfaction participants had with their body weight.  This was measured using an eight-item subscale with items such as “I really like what I weigh.”
  • Attribution esteem, or how participants believed others felt about their appearance.  Attribution esteem was measured using a five-point subscale with items such as “Boys and girls like the way I look.”

Based on the data collected, Nelson and her co-authors computed trajectories showing changes in body esteem  over the fourteen years of the study.  Overall, they found that body esteem showed a noticeable drop between the ages of ten and thirteen for both boys and girls.  This drop appears to level off between the ages of sixteen and twenty reaching a plateau by age twenty-four.  The most significant drop in body esteem during adolescence was in females with higher BMIs between ages ten and sixteen.  Similar trends were obtained for weight and attribution esteem though again,  with a plateau being reached by age twenty-four. In looking at gender difference however, body esteem in males tended to be more stable over time without many of the highs and lows seen in females.  

These results reflect previous research showing that females tend to be more likely than males to be bullied or victimized due to their appearance, particularly during the period when they go through puberty. This accounts for the sharp drop in weight and appearance esteem between the ages of ten and sixteen though the trend reverses itself as they grow older.  By the time they reach age 24, body esteem hits a plateau as women become more satisfied with their personal appearance. As well, women with higher than average BMIs also showed the most rapid drop in weight and appearance esteem during adolescence though again, this trend tended to reverse itself as they enter adulthood.  

In looking at attribution esteem or how individuals think others perceive them, the results seem quite different.  For the majority of participants (over 90 percent), attribution esteem actually increased over time or else remained stable between the ages of ten and twenty.   This may reflect the growing sense of identity in adolescents as they mature physically and create new social networks. 

For the ten percent of participants whose attribution esteem actually dropped as they grew older however, they tended to follow the same pattern noted in appearance and weight esteem.  Though beginning with the same level of attribution esteem as their peers at age ten, this dropped sharply between the ages of ten and thirteen and levels off by the time they become adults.   In explaining this pattern,  Sara Nelson and her colleagues suggest that these changes may reflect problem relationships with peers, including the effects of bullying.

Overall, these results reflect the greater vulnerability of girls and women due to cultural standards of beauty, especially those females with higher BMIs.  Along with potential issues with body esteem, research has established that girls are more likely than boys to discuss body issues with other girls their age and are also more likely to compare themselves with others they regard as being more attractive. 

This can include the often-unrealistic beauty standards of females seen in movies and on television. With “fat-shaming” and other forms of bullying that can make females self-conscious about their appearance, it’s hardly surprising that girls in their early teens can be especially vulnerable to loss of self-esteem and a reduced sense of identity,  All of which can lead to greater vulnerability to mental health problems, including depression and eating disorders.  

In the same way that Erik Erikson identified adolescence as the stage in life when we develop our sense of personal identity, studies such as this one help demonstrate the role that body esteem can play in this process. While both boys and girls may develop issues with low self-esteem as their bodies develop,  social and cultural pressures can be especially brutal for girls in terms of such such issues as body weight and physical attractiveness. Though this particular study focused on adolescents and young adults from a specific country (Sweden), previous research has already found similar results from other countries and cultures as well.  

Can these kind of studies suggest better ways of helping both boys and girls avoid mental health problems stemming from poor self-esteem and unrealistic expectations?  Perhaps.  As we can see from this research (as well as our own personal experiences), adolescence can be a brutal time for many young people as they come to terms with becoming adults.  Helping them make this transition with as little trauma as possible is a vital part of ensuring a healthy future for them.

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