Body image difficulties among adolescents do not respect borders, according to Professor David Mellor from the School of Psychology at Deakin University.
“While body image issues have previously been considered a Western problem, our studies have identified similar levels of body dissatisfaction among young people from other countries including China, Malaysia, Japan and Chile," Professor Mellor said.
With his colleagues, Alfred Deakin Professor Marita McCabe and Associate Professor Lina Ricciardelli, also in the School of Psychology, Professor Mellor has been studying body image problems in adolescents over many years.
Their research team, also part of the Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing Research at Deakin University, has recently started comparing the features and extent of body image problems among adolescents within Australia and neighbouring Pacific Rim countries.
“We believe that the apparent rise in body image problems within Eastern countries may be due to increasing exposure to Western media and the body image ideals it portrays," he said.
“For example, with increasing exposure to the Western masculine ideal of thinness and muscularity, Chinese and Malaysian male adolescents are now expressing dissatisfaction with their appearance. Similarly, many female adolescents exposed to images of the female ideal of thinness are dissatisfied with their bodies, even though their shape and size is often close to the media-portrayed ideal.
“The media is just one of the factors that shape body dissatisfaction though. Peers and parents also play a role, but our research shows that these factors are influencing body dissatisfaction in slightly different ways, depending on the culture.
“For example, in Chile, young people's attitudes toward their body appear to be influenced more by what parents say than the media or their friends. This means the underlying mechanism of the development of body dissatisfaction is dependent on the particular culture within which the child has grown up.”
To make the story even more intriguing, in different countries and amongst different cultural groups, different parts of the body seem to be more important to overall body dissatisfaction than others.
"In a recent study of Asians and Anglo-Australians, we found that dissatisfaction with face, height and hair were unique predictors of body dissatisfaction among Malays, Chinese Malaysians and Chinese to a far greater extent than that found in Australians," Professor Mellor said.
"These findings reveal the importance of considering both culturally-specific beauty ideals as well as other influences on body dissatisfaction."
But why is it important to understand body dissatisfaction?
According to Professor Mellor, numerous negative outcomes are associated with body dissatisfaction, including chronically low self-esteem, depression or self-harm. At the more severe end of the spectrum are eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviours aimed at changing the body size and shape.
"If we have a better understanding of the sources of body dissatisfaction, then we have a better idea of how to shape prevention and intervention programs," he said.
Ultimately though, according to Professor Mellor, it’s about building resilience into children. Whether different cultures equip their children with different levels or types of resilience is another question that Professor Mellor hopes to tackle – one of the many that he and his colleagues hope to answer through their ongoing global research program.