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Oct. 29 2009 - 12:14 pm | 380 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Teen girls and sex: the body image dilemma continues

Calhan High School seniors in Colorado, USA.

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Another study to make body image advocates (and parents, and…uh…women) sigh with frustration today. According to the research team behind the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, teen girls who perceive themselves to be at “weight extremes”, are not only more likely to have sex – but more likely to get freaky without protection.

The survey polled 7,193 high school girls on their weight, body image and sexual behaviors. They found that girls who were “overweight” according to the BMI Index were less likely to engage in sexual activity. However, among those who were sexually active, those with a higher BMI were also more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors: more than four partners, skipping condoms and combining alcohol with sexual activity.  Ditto for girls who were actually “underweight” but self-reported their body size as “overweight.”

Among sexually active girls, those who had low BMI and perceived themselves as overweight or had overweight misperceptions were less likely to report condom use at last sex. Sexually active girls who perceived themselves as overweight were also more likely to have had sex before age 13…

Based on previous studies regarding the link between body image and self-esteem, the researchers concluded that “girls with a negative body perception may have a limited capacity or willingness to negotiate effectively with partners, resulting in higher rates of sexual risk behaviors.”

Yet another example of cultural body ideals that have become so powerful, and so pervasive, that they can actually destroy the lives of teenaged girls. And I don’t think I’m being over-dramatic, either: low self-esteem, eating disorders and abusive relationships have already been linked to warped body image. Now, young women are apparently more likely to contract STD’s or become pregnant – or, more fundamentally, give in to sexual preferences of their partners – if they perceive themselves as “overweight.”

Weight has become the buzzword tied to every measure of self-worth. Since when did a number on the scale have such a profound impact on the very important, life-changing decisions that teens and young adults will make? The fact that research teams even think to study such topics – “hey, we ought to run a poll on the effect of weight perception and high-risk sexual activity” – is a sad one. I can only hope that there more research meets the public eye, the more we’ll become aware of just how damaging our weight-centric norms have become.


4 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    I share your outrage at the problem, although not your surprise. Teen girls get so many confusing, overstimulating messages. For example, when I clicked to read the link there were several ads being served. First was “Big and Beautiful Singles – Free to Join. 1000’s of pictures & video’s of Big & Beautiful Singles followed by a couple of ads for Gastric Bypass Surgery.

    Hopefully, knowing weight misperceptions correlate with risky sexual behavior will lead to harm reduction interventions.

  2. collapse expand

    If being, or thinking you are, overweight = ugly/unlovable you’ll likely grab whatever attention you think you can. Sad indeed.

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