Girls mature at different rates. Some adolescents develop at a young age, showing signs of physical maturity which can make them feel different from their peers. This perception could increase their desire to diet in order to regain their prepubescent shape. This mindset can set the stage for disordered eating and often predicts anorexic or bulimic behaviors. The additional stressors of emotional, neurologic, and hormonal changes can exacerbate underlying conditions and increase those at risk for problem eating. Identifying risk factors for early maturation in girls could help clinicians provide interventions that might prevent future disordered eating. Kathryn Paige Harden, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, recently conducted a study examining how these changes affect young girls’ perceptions of conformity and contribute to disordered eating.
Harden reviewed interviews of 1,848 sisters and analyzed them for factors related to maturation, self-esteem, romantic objectification, parental influence, and peer status. She found that the girls who thought that they matured faster than their peers were more likely to engage in dieting that predicted eating problems. These girls were exposed to genetic risks that caused them to mature early and therefore engage in dieting behaviors. Additionally, these same girls were more sensitive to other’s views of their rapidly developing physical bodies and perceived themselves as different when they compared themselves to their less-developed peers, fueling the desire to conform through extreme measures.
The genes that cause girls to mature can be identified as a potential risk factor for eating problems. For instance, some studies have suggested that genes responsible for ovarian hormone development are more pronounced and mature sooner in girls with disordered eating than in those without eating issues. Therefore, recognizing which girls are likely to experience early physical and biological development could help schools and medical professionals target this population with interventions designed to address the emotional and physical consequences of early maturation. Harden hopes that current programs that are aimed at changing the perceptions girls have of themselves will consider all of the risk factors present in girls who mature early in order to prevent them from developing problem dieting and eating patterns.
Harden, K. P., Mendle, J., Kretsch, N. (2012). Environmental and genetic pathways between early pubertal timing and dieting in adolescence: Distinguishing between objective and subjective timing. Psychological Medicine 42.1, 183-193.
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