Purpose: To examine the impact of gender, racial-ethnic group, and perceived pubertal timing on body image and adolescent mental health.
Method: A three-stage, area probability sample was selected which included 877 teens (13-18 years) with diverse social and demographic characteristics. Interviews in English or Spanish were conducted in person. The content emphasized emotional distress and problematic behavior, exposure to social stressors, coping resources and behaviors, and socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the adolescent and his or her family.
Results: Girls were more depressed and had lower self-esteem than boys, but not after controlling for body image. Hispanics were more depressed and had lower self-esteem than other racial-ethnic groups, a difference that remained when controlling for body image. African-Americans had the most positive body image, a finding that could not be attributed to higher self-esteem or fewer depressive symptoms. The impact of perceived pubertal timing on body image varied considerably by gender and across racial-ethnic group.
Conclusions: Negative feelings about their bodies contribute to the higher prevalence of depressive symptomatology and lower self-esteem among girls. African-Americans appear to take pride in their bodies in a manner that sets them apart from other teenagers, suggesting they hold a different ideal. Relative to teenagers of other racial-ethnic backgrounds, Hispanics may be at elevated risk for mental health problems.