Research looks at the development of body image in young girls
With help from a grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, Dr. Marisol Perez, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, recently launched a study on self-image and eating disorders among young girls. Focused on girls between the ages of 4 and 7, the research has a long-term goal of developing an interactive program to help instill a healthy body image for young women.
Because most existing eating disorder programs are geared toward teenagers and adults, Perez’s research could mark a breakthrough in preventive psychology by developing a program for younger children.
“What we’re seeing now is that younger and younger girls are being taken to treatment centers for eating disorders,” Perez said. “When we looked at the literature on 4 to 6-year-olds, we know very little with regard to visible symptoms, what types of symptoms, how they differ from older children, and what the risk factors look like at such a young age.”
Perez’s interest in eating disorders developed at a young age.
“I come from a dance background, and in the dance world I was exposed to a lot of girls with eating disorders,” Perez said. “There seemed to be two types—those with high risk for eating disorders, and those that were resilient to them. My interest in both the resiliency and the risk attracted me to studying in this field.”
In studying the problem, Perez developed an experiment that involves observing mother-daughter pairs and the related influence on self-image. Perez recruits girls ages 5 to 7 and their mothers to analyze the way they view themselves and their bodies. She also looks for potential eating disorder symptoms.
In one experiment, mothers and daughters talk to each other about their bodies. Another experiment uses a set of almost identical dolls that vary only by body features and clothing ranging from conservative to more revealing. The participants are asked questions that can determine how they perceive themselves in comparison to their desired image.
“We think a switch occurs right about the age of six, when girls stop watching preschool age TV shows that don’t promote the thin ideal to watching TV programming and commercials that do promote the thin ideal and feature more sexualized clothing,” Perez said. “This is really new territory with this age group.”
With the aid of undergraduate research assistants, Perez estimates that the research should span six months to a year. Based on this research, Perez will then develop an accessible online program for parents consisting of informational videos and other more interactive activities. These tools will be designed to assist parents in developing a healthy body image for young girls.
“Eating disorders are increasing at an alarming rate.” Perez said. “The biggest benefit of the program we hope to develop will be prevention. Hopefully, we will be able to reduce the risk of eating disorders in the next generation of girls starting at a very early age.”