Cause, effect, or neither?

Recent research from the Basque region in Spain found that boys have greater psychological well-being than girls because they have a better physical self-concept.

First off, some definitions. A person's self-concept is "the totality of perceptions that each person has of themselves," which doesn't help a whole lot. I think a lot of your self-concept has to do with the adjectives you use to describe yourself, and what talents and traits you value in yourself. But the author here looked at one specific aspect of self-concept: how you perceived yourself physically. In other words: body image.

The author looked at the relationship between physical self-concept and general psychological well-being, depression and anxiety, and eating disorders. The study found that

the more one is happy with one’s physique, the more psychological well-being one has, with less levels of anxiety and depression and less risk of suffering from an Eating Behavior Disorder.

Now, in general, I think the results make a lot of sense, especially now that your weight isn't just about being "thin" or "pretty." People can and do equate your weight with your moral worth. Though this is catching up for men and boys, I think it's safe to say that women and girls get it worse. I also think that if you have major body image issues, you're less likely to be happy with yourself. This leads, not surprisingly, to increased rates of depression and anxiety.

But I read this research summary shortly after I read something that Laura had posts on how childhood balance problems could be linked to anxiety disorders. This got me thinking about how your physical self-concept extends far before the window of time when one is most prone to developing an eating disorder. And maybe that a poor physical self-concept may not cause an eating disorder, but rather be a side effect of the genetic wiring that makes you prone to such disorders.

To be fair, the author never implied that poor physical self-concept caused eating disorders, but the timeline was clear: poor physical self-concept can lead to an eating disorder down the line. But the genetic predisposition to an eating disorder happens long before a child has a chance to develop a concept of body image, and indeed, research has shown that people with eating disorders perceive their own bodies differently.

It could also be true that those teens with depression and anxiety think negatively about everything, including their bodies. The author didn't, I don't think, separate these out in time (as in the chicken or the egg kind of thing). Nor does it have to be one or the other. Likely things like risk factors for EDs, depression and anxiety, and physical self-concept interact with each other, ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning over time.

So it could very well be that this negative physical self-concept is a symptom of something else going on deep in the brain, just as it is a symptom of a society that places exceptionally high value on appearance.


Sad Mom said...

I can add to the correlation and am excited to read this. My son has never been able to master a bicycle. He could not achieve the balance necessary despite many afternoons of practice. He missed out on Boy Scout trips and the general fun of speeding around the neighborhood and the independence of getting away on his own. I'm sure he was teased about it and likely felt himself to be a major failure because of it. I'm now flogging myself for not having his ears checked but honestly I thought he would figure it out sooner or later.

Thank you - another piece of the puzzle just dropped into place.

Carrie Arnold said...

DON'T BEAT YOURSELF UP FOR THIS! It's okay. My brother has a massive hearing loss, and he was almost 4 before anyone noticed (he taught himself to read lips). So believe me, it happens.

FWIW, I'm a total klutz. I didn't get my training wheels off until I was about 7 or 8. I'm not sure what the link is, exactly. It might not be in the inner ear portion of balance, but it could be in the brain's perception of what's going on.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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