Early Body Dissatisfaction & Depression in Adolescents 

Body dissatisfaction and poor body image have been rising in prevalence continuously fueled by social and popular media channels leading to shifting attitudes among adolescents in particular. Such concerns are frequently reported in mid-adolescence and may be associated with the subsequent onset of mental health symptoms, ranging from disordered eating patterns to depression. As a whole, body dissatisfaction can lead to behaviors among individuals that multiply health risks, including excessive exercise, drug abuse, and often comorbid psychiatric illnesses which have been linked to numerous adverse outcomes.

Furthermore, psychiatric symptoms tend to exacerbate the consequences of body dissatisfaction as they increase self-reported anxiety and depression. According to data from a recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health  the presence of body dissatisfaction at 14 years of age can predict the occurrence of depressive episodes at 18 years of age.

Body Dissatisfaction and Associated Depression 

Led by Anna Bornioli, PhD, from the University of the West of England in Bristol, a team of researchers examined the influence of body dissatisfaction on the later occurrence of depressive episodes in nearly 4,000 adolescent patients. The total study cohort was comprised of 2,078 female participants and 1,675 male adolescents with data gathered from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

The research team assessed body dissatisfaction at 14 years of age and examined the subsequent association with the onset of depressive episodes at 18 years of age. They controlled for baseline depression using logistic regression models.

Onset of Depressive Episodes

Dr. Bornioli and her colleagues found that body dissatisfaction present at age 14 predicted mild, moderate, and severe depressive episodes later in life among the female participants. In the male cohort, body dissatisfaction at age 14 predicted mild and severe depressive episodes occurring at age 18.

As the first prospective study to examine the correlation between body dissatisfaction in adolescence with the later presentation of depressive episodes, the research highlights the need for further study in this area. It also demonstrates the need to treat body dissatisfaction as a potentially dangerous signal indicative of the potential development of psychiatric symptoms in the future.

“These findings demonstrate that body dissatisfaction should be considered as a public health issue of pressing concern,” the authors write. “Body dissatisfaction is highly prevalent among young people in the general population and has an increasing incidence; the findings indicate that reducing body dissatisfaction might be an effective strategy to reduce mental health issues.”

The early development of body image dissatisfaction and severe weight management behaviors can lead to distorted perception, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, increased risk of developing eating disorders as well as other life-threatening habits, and depression. Many of these associated effects can be harmful to patient health and in some cases even fatal. As such, body dissatisfaction should be considered a public health concern and clinicians can benefit from using the symptom as a risk factor in early adolescent patients to help prevent the development of subsequent psychiatric illness, depressive episodes, as well as other adverse mental and physical health outcomes.