Is Body Dissatisfaction Driving Unhappiness in Teen Girls?

BY: Emily White

DATE: April 27, 2016

Adolescence is a time of strife for many teens, but new research1 suggests that teen girls may be less happy than their male counterparts and much of this unhappiness may be attributed to body image concerns.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) conducts an ongoing, annual epidemiological study, known as the Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, of over 200,000 teens in 42 nations across the world. This project has been ongoing for 30 years with W.H.O. releasing new findings every 4 years. The most recent report, focusing on data collected from European nations between September 2013 and June 2014, provides information about adolescents’ social context, physical health, risky behaviors, and satisfaction with life.

The latest report sheds light on happiness, health, well being, and overall satisfaction among 15-year-old boys and girls in European countries. Overall, there were few noticeable differences between the genders in terms of physical health or well being. However, in terms of overall happiness and life satisfaction, girls across nations reported less happiness and satisfaction than boys.

Why might European girls be unhappier than boys? One major difference between these two groups is body satisfaction. Girls in the HBSC study reported significantly more body dissatisfaction than same-age male peers. These differences were so profound that one author of the study commented “some [teens] remain disadvantaged from birth by virtue of their gender.” The report concluded by emphasizing the need to recognize girls’ unhappiness and to address the “clear gender-difference issue,” particularly in terms of body satisfaction. While the HBSC study did not directly assess whether body dissatisfaction accounted for decreased happiness and life satisfaction, the researchers hypothesize this is one possible theory.

Higher rates of body dissatisfaction in teen girls are concerning, as poor body image is one of the most robust risk factors for eating disorder development. Furthermore, the teenage years are often considered a period of elevated risk for eating disorder development, as the average age of onset for both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is before age 18. While this study did not measure eating disorder behaviors, it is likely given the high rates of body dissatisfaction in the sample that many teens may have been struggling with disordered eating as well.

Researchers often study the relationship between body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms. However, this report demonstrates that body dissatisfaction is a global concern with detrimental impacts on more than just eating behaviors.

1Inchley J et al. eds. Growing up unequal: gender and socioeconomic differences in young people’s health and well-being. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2013/2014 survey. Copenhagen, WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2016 (Health Policy for Children and Adolescents, No. 7).