By Caroline Lord 08/12/2020


New research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, shows a credible link between adolescent body dissatisfaction and the onset of depression in adulthood.

Young people who experienced dissatisfaction with their appearance faced an increased risk of depression in their early adult lives of between 50% to 285%. The trend was present in both male and female teens, with the likelihood of developing severe depression being much greater for boys.

The University of West England, Bristol study used a population sample of nearly 4000 British adolescents born in the early 1990s. Participants were drawn from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which monitors the lives of individuals living in Somerset, England.

Each individual was asked to rank their feelings about their physical appearance from 0 (extremely dissatisfied) to 5 (extremely satisfied). At age 14, girls reported being more dissatisfied than boys with their weight, figure, body build and specific body features. “Girls tended to dislike their thighs, stomach, and weight, but liked their hair and hips. Boys tended to be dissatisfied with body build, stomach, and hips, but weren’t bothered about their hair, weight, or legs.”

“Nearly 1 in 3 (32%) of the girls and around 1 in 7 (14%) of the boys were dissatisfied with their weight, and around 1 in 4 (27%) girls and 1 in 7 (14%) boys were dissatisfied with their figure.”

At age 18, the participants were formally assessed for depressive symptoms, using a validated scale (CIS-R). Comparison of these results with the body dissatisfaction data given by the participants at age 14 accurately “predicted depressive episodes of all degrees of severity among the girls, and mild and severe depressive episodes among the boys by the time they were 18 years old. These findings held true, even after taking account of depressive symptoms at the age of 14.”

By age 18, girls were more likely experience depression than boys. “One in 10 (10%) of the girls reported at least one mild depressive episode compared with 1 in 20 (5%) of the boys. Nearly 7% of the girls and nearly 3% of the boys reported at least one moderately severe depressive episode, while severe depressive episode(s) affected 1.5% of the girls and less than 1% (0.7%) of the boys.”

The findings revealed that intense bodily dissatisfaction as a teenager was associated with a heightened risk of experiencing a severe depressive episode in early adulthood.

“Among the girls, each increase in the body dissatisfaction scale at the age of 14 was associated with a heightened risk of experiencing at least one mild (63%), moderate (67%) and/or severe (84%) depressive episode at the age of 18.”

For boys, the risk was much higher. The likelihood of experiencing at least one episode of severe depression from age 18 was 285% greater for teen males who experienced high levels of body dissatisfaction at age 14.

Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash

The researchers believe much of this negativity is a result of the contemporary social environment. “It is possible that in the era of social media and increasing pressures on body ideals, male adolescents have also become sensitive to [idealised body image] pressures, which may translate into later depressive episodes”.

The findings suggest body dissatisfaction is a serious public health issue “of pressing concern.” Alongside depression, negative body perception can lead to eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food and exercise. Depression also has well-recognised links to the increased risk of suicide.

The effects of this trend are not limited to the United Kingdom. Negative body image a global issue. Up to 61% of adolescents worldwide experience some level of dissatisfaction with their bodies, according to comparative international studies. And this trend is increasing.

The University of West England study fills an important gap in the existing research on body dissatisfaction and depression by exploring how the Millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 1997), and young males in particular, are influenced by the internet, technology and social media.

The ALSPAC data had limited ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, which the researchers acknowledge “may limit the wider applicability of the findings”. The questionnaires were also skewed toward female appearance ideals and did not account for sexual orientation or those that do not associate with the gender assigned to them at birth.

However, the researchers hope their findings can lead to positive social change, since “reducing body dissatisfaction might be an effective strategy to reduce mental health issues.”

Possible areas of intervention suggested in the paper include school-based media literacy programmes targeting appearance discrimination and bullying; and a more holistic public health approach to both physical and mental well-being that shifts attitudes from “weight control to weight outcomes, and appreciation of the body in relation to its functionality as opposed to its appearance.”

Read more about the research on Scimex.org

Featured image by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash.