Who’s more likely to have sex, a girl who likes her body or one who doesn’t?

Rosalie Corona, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University

Young girls in the United States continue to be bombarded with media images of an “ideal” body type that may be difficult to attain and sustain. As a result, we may wonder what impact these media images have on our girls’ physical and emotional health. Research on adolescent girls’ body image shows us that when girls feel bad about their bodies they may engage in unhealthy eating and dieting behaviors to change themselves (e.g., CDC, 2012; Neumark-Sztainer, Paxton, Hannan, Haines, & Story, 2006). Even girls as young as 9 and 10 years of age are aware of their changing bodies and many have identified areas they want to change (e.g., Sherwood et al., 2003). Yet for younger girls, unhealthy behavior practices may be malleable, providing us with a potential developmental period for intervening.

Much of what is known about how body image perceptions affect adolescent girls’ health has focused on eating disorders, eating practices, dieting behavior, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms. Researchers are also beginning to identify a link between body image and sexual risk behaviors among adolescents. For example, girls who are dissatisfied with their body are more likely than other girls to engage in sexual risk behaviors like having multiple sexual partners and not using contraception when sexually active (Akers et al., 2009; Leech & Dias, 2012; Wingood, DiClemente, Harrington, & Davies, 2002). Although we are beginning to learn that how an adolescent feels about her body affects her sexual behavior, we have less insight into the reasons why this association exists. For example, what would adolescent girls say if they were asked to explain “Who is more likely to have sex, a girl who likes her body or a girl who does not?” This is a question we recently asked African American and Latina adolescent girls and their maternal caregivers. Preliminary data from the African American dyads indicated that while most maternal caregivers thought the adolescent girl with a negative body image would be more likely to have sex, only about one-third of adolescent girls shared this view. One-third of adolescent girls said the girl with a positive body image would be more likely to have sex, and one-third replied that both girls would be equally likely. The reasons why caregivers and adolescents thought some girls may be more likely to have sex than others included low self-esteem for girls with a poor body image and high self-esteem for girls’ with a positive body image. Other reasons mentioned included wanting to get attention, not considering consequences, and the influence of others like their peers.

Our hope is that what we learn from these girls and their caregivers will direct us to strategies that help girls feel better and more accepting of their bodies as a way of promoting their sexual health. For example, incorporating a media literacy curriculum within an evidence-based sexual health program may help promote both body self-esteem and sexual health. Media literacy helps youth understand and evaluate what they are watching thereby making them active viewers rather than passive recipients of information. Specifically, it is important to help youth understand that media messages are constructed for a specific reason (e.g., to sell a product), that values and points of view are embedded within these representations (e.g., if you use this hair product you will look beautiful), and that media messages are driven by profit within economic and political contexts. An emerging body of research shows that media literacy programs are effective at helping youth develop critical thinking and literacy skills related to violence (Robinson et al., 2001), disordered eating (Wade, Davidson, O’Dea, 2003), and alcohol use (Austin& Johnson, 1997). Few media literacy programs, however, have been developed and evaluated for HIV prevention (Keller & Brown, 2002), highlighting a potentially untapped intervention format.

In addition to developing new strategies to help adolescent girls, the link between body image and sexual risk behaviors often leaves caregivers wondering what they can do to help their young girls. One potential strategy is for caregivers to help young girls learn how to critically analyze media messages so that they do not internalize them. For example, while looking through a magazine together, caregivers can take the opportunity to ask questions like: How does this ad define beauty? What do you think when you see an ad like this? What message do you think they are trying to send to consumers? Caregivers can also critically shape their adolescent girls’ body-related attitudes, perceptions, and behavior indirectly through the modeling of unhealthy eating and dieting behaviors and directly by communicating negative messages (e.g., weight teasing, negative comments). Thus, caregivers may want to be more cautious about what they say to their adolescent girls about their body and more mindful about what message they mean to communicate when making body-focused comments. It might help to remember that although body-focused messages may be meant as terms of endearment because that seems like a cute thing to say (e.g., calling a young girl “flaca” [i.e., skinny]), the meaning of body-related messages may be perceived differently by adolescents, especially as they are becoming more aware of their changing body. In addition, a body-focused message said to a 9-year-old girl can be perceived as innocuous while the same 14-year-old girl may perceive it as a criticism. Thus, being aware of what a message means to an adolescent is important. Finally, caregivers could work on developing or strengthening their skills to keep open the channels of communication with their adolescent girls. Using listening skills like open-ended questions (e.g., “What do you think about how she looks?”) and remaining aware of their adolescent girls’ media consumption can help. Finally, it is essential to remember that how we talk with adolescent girls changes over time so the messages and values that we want to share should also shift in content and frequency. It’s not enough to have the one big talk – we have to keep talking to our girls repeatedly and at their developmental level.

Together, our work and the work of others highlight a new avenue for sexual health promotion for adolescent girls. By integrating media literacy, body image issues, and sexual health promotion programs we are beginning to more fully address influences on girls’ feelings about themselves and their attitudes about risk behaviors, as well as their behaviors. Finally, developing new strategies for helping caregivers promote positive attitudes and behaviors continues to be important given the important role caregivers play in adolescent health.


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Keller, S.N. & Brown, J.D. (2002). Media interventions to promote responsible sexual behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 67-72. 

Leech, T.G.J. & Dias, J.J. (2012). Risky sexual behavior: A race-specific social consequence of   obsesity. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 41-52.

Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S.J., Hannan, P.J., Haines, J., & Story, M. (2006). Does body        satisfaction matter? Five year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males.

Robinson, T.N., Wilde, M.L., Navracruz, L.C., Haydel, K.F., & Varady, A. (2001). Effects of      reducing children’s television and video game use on aggressive behavior: A randomized    controlled trial. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, 155, 17–23.

Sherwood, N.E., Story, M., Beech, B., Klesges, L., Mellin, A., Neumark-Sztainer, D., &

Davis, M. (2003). Body image perceptions and dieting among African American pre-adolescent girls and parents/caregivers. Ethnicity & Disease, 13, 200-207.

Wade, T.D., Davidson, S., & O’Dea, J.A. (2003). A preliminary controlled evaluation of a           school-based media literacy program and self-esteem program for reducing eating           disorder risk factors. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33, 371-383. 

Wingood, G.M., DiClemente, R.J., Harrington, K., & Davies, S.L. (2002). Body image and          African American females sexual health. Journal of Women’s Health & Gender-based       Medicine, 11, 433-439.

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