Body image research gives pause for reflection

New study by Dr Sian McLean shows there is no detrimental effect in taking part in body image research.

Written by Rei Fortes

Body image has become a prominent health issue today, especially amongst young people in their adolescence. This has led to the development of many online trends encouraging weight loss or muscle gain that negatively influences how young people view themselves. According to Mission Australia’s Annual Youth Survey 2020, a third of young people believed  body image was their top three personal concerns.

“Our body image is a central part of our self-identity. It helps form our perception of who we think we are and if you’re dissatisfied with your body, you’re potentially dissatisfied with a key part of your identity, which can impact your self-worth,” says Dr Siân McLean, Senior Research Fellow from The Bouverie Centre at La Trobe University and President of The Australia & New Zealand Academy for Eating Disorders (ANZAED).

Dr McLean, in collaboration with Associate Professor Amy Slater from the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England in Bristol, Emeritus Professor Susan Paxton and Graduate Researcher Hannah Jarman in Psychology at La Trobe University conducted a study to see if body image assessments have a negative effect on young adolescents.

“We have had experiences of wanting to do body image research in school settings and coming up against concerns either from school staff or parents that they don’t want their children exposed to the questions that we might ask about body image,”  says Dr McLean.“This research tries to understand whether there is any harm from adolescents engaging in body image research.”

The study analysed whether there was a shift in the perception of body image and engagement in body change strategies for young adolescents who completed the survey once or twice within a six-month interval period. Overall, the results found that the body image assessments did not influence or encourage any negative behaviours in the adolescent boys and girls involved in the project.

“Our study showed that participating in body image research was not associated with elevated body dissatisfaction or related behaviours. This is important for future research as we can have confidence that our careful approaches are not likely to be problematic for young people,” says Dr Slater.

“We can confidently be talking with schools and parents saying this is an important area of research,” says Dr McLean. “In fact, our findings encourage more body image studies so we can better understand how to engage with the younger generation to help them form healthy views of themselves.”

Dr McLean and her collaborators continue to explore the many facets of body image research to educate and help prevent negative outcomes that result from body dissatisfaction.