Teen sex: a weighty issue

Race and body image have complex effects on high school girls' risk-taking behavior, a new study shows

Published November 2, 2009 1:03PM (EST)

Lately, at Broadsheet, we've been writing a lot about the fashion industry, glossy women's magazines, plus-size models and Photoshop disasters. It's difficult to quantify the effects of Christian Louboutin's howling about Barbie dolls' cankles, on one hand, and Glamour's newfound (and likely temporary) commitment to showcasing models with a variety of body types on the other. But a new study hints at the impact such a weight-obsessed culture may be having on a particularly vulnerable demographic -- teenage girls.

At first glance, a paper published in the journal Pediatrics may seem to imply that young women are virtually unaffected by body image: As The Washington Post's The Checkup blog reports, researchers found "no association between high-school girls' body-mass index -- which indicates whether a body is under-, over- or of normal weight -- and their ever having had sex." But once the University of Pittsburgh team began to break down their results by high-school girls' race, perceived weight and a matrix of especially risky sexual behaviors, the findings became more complicated.

Overall, the study found that underweight girls, as well as those who were or believed they were overweight, were less likely to use condoms than their normal-weight counterparts. Of the many things this might suggest, what seems obvious to me is this group's lack of agency and self-worth. Girls may be seeing their (real or perceived) larger size as a flaw they must compensate for, and those with low self-esteem may already be starving themselves. (Personally, I'd be interested to see how much overlap there was between the group of girls who were actually underweight and the group that considered itself to be overweight.)

And the findings only get stickier when race enters the equation. Here's how The Checkup breaks them down:

  • Caucasian girls who thought they were underweight -- whether they actually were or not -- were more likely to have had sex and to have had four or more sexual partners than those who thought their weight was normal. Caucasian girls who were truly overweight were less likely to use condoms.

  • Underweight African-American girls were less likely to use condoms than those of normal weight, and overweight African-American girls were more likely to report four or more sexual partners.

  • Latina girls of all weights were more likely to engage in a wide variety of risky sexual behaviors, from lack of condom use and sex before age 13 to having more than four sexual partners during their teens and using alcohol.

These results are, of course, all over the map, and more research is likely necessary to determine why the racial differences are so pronounced. But a few common threads emerge: Girls who are or believe themselves to be over- or underweight seem most likely to be leading dangerous sex lives. And, for some reason, young Latinas are especially vulnerable, regardless of real or perceived weight.

So, now that we are beginning to understand how weight, race and body image can play into girls' early sexual experiences, what can we do to decrease their risk-taking behavior? For Dr. Aletha Akers, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of gynecology and and reproductive sciences at Pitt, it comes down to better sex education. "This study will contribute to sexual health education prevention efforts, which can be tailored to address how cultural norms regarding body size may influence adolescent sexual decision making," she says, in a press release. "Knowing how a girl perceives her weight may be just as important as knowing her actual weight." More specifically, the study concludes "that girls at weight extremes and those from different racial backgrounds may have unique sexual health education and prevention needs."

I have no quibble with Akers' recommendations; in fact, I hope politicians and those who design sex ed curricula are listening to what she has to say. But I think it's also important to point out that not all sex education happens in school. If we want girls to feel good enough about themselves that they wait until they're ready, practice safe sex and avoid other risky behaviors, we're also going to have to help them interpret the messages they're getting from more informal sources -- from friends and siblings to magazine and TV.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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