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Male and female children, 189 in number, ages 7, 10 or 13 from white and Hispanic ethnic groups participated. Children selected their perceived and desired ideal body size, using figure line drawings of children of varying sizes. They made judgments for both same sex and opposite sex children.

Boys perceive their body as larger than girls, although no differences in size existed. Only girls want to be smaller than their perceived size. Both boys and girls rate other children of the same sex as larger than their ideal size. Neither boys nor girls think the opposite sex should change size to be an ideal size. Girls chose a smaller ideal size for themselves as compared to other girls. Girls' perceived ideal size for themselves was smaller than what boys rated as ideal for girls.

There were no significant ethnic differences on perceived or ideal body size nor on body dissatisfaction. However, gender differences within ethnic groups were found.

During the 20th century there has been a steady thinning of the ideal body image for women (Garner, Garfinkel, Schwartz, Thompson, 1980; Myers & Biocca, 1992; Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, & Kelly, 1986). This is reflected in the decreasing size of store mannequins from a normal size between 1920 and 1950 to gradually appearing anorectic between 1960 and 1990 (Rintala Mustajoki, 1992). The mean weights for centerfolds and beauty contestants have also declined in the past 20 years (Garner et al., 1980; Myers & Biocca, 1992). Furthermore, the pageant winners have weighed significantly less than other contestants.

Body size dissatisfaction has been shown to be one of the primary precursors for eating disorders in women. This dissatisfaction is reflected in the desire to be thinner than one's perceived actual size. Some studies suggest that a desire for thinness may manifest itself early in childhood (Collins, 1991; Gardner, Sorter, & Friedman, 1997).

Several studies with children have shown that the majority of girls wanted to be thinner, wished they weighed less, and/or have tried dieting (Button, Loan, Davies, & Sonuga-Barke, 1997; Eisele, Hertsgaard, & Light, 1986; Maloney, McGuire, Daniels, & Specker, 1989; Rolland, Farnill, & Griffiths, 1997).

The most common procedure for measuring children's estimates of their body size is through the use of silhouettes or figure line drawings representing various body sizes. The figure drawings are usually presented on a single sheet of paper, with figures arranged in ascending widths from left to right. Subjects are instructed to mark the silhouette they think represents their actual size as well as their ideal size. Collins (1991) found that girls selected an ideal figure significantly smaller than their actual size. Furthermore, an expectation for thinness among girls may be evident as early as 6 or 7 years of age (Gardner et al., 1997). Cohn, Adler, Irwin, Millstein, Kegeles, and Stone (1987) found the ideal figure that girls chose for themselves was thinner than the figure boys considered to be most attractive. They also showed that girls had a bias toward thinness, while boys preferred the larger figures for their ideal size.

Thompson, S. H., Corwin, and Sargent (1997) measured ethnic differences in children and found that girls and white children experienced more body dissatisfaction and weight concern than boys and black children. In a study done by Childress, Brewerton, Hodges, and Jarrell (1993), 40% of children ranging in age from 9 to 16 reported feeling fat and wanted to lose weight. Also, weight control behaviors, such as dieting, fasting, vomiting, using diet pills, binging, and so forth, occurred more often in girls than boys. This evidence supports the findings of Rolland et al. (1997) that 50% of girls and 33% of boys wanted to be thinner and have attempted to lose weight. These studies consistently find body dissatisfaction and emerging dieting along with other weight control behaviors in very young children.

In the United States there are racial differences on body-size preference. Fewer black girls, compared to white girls, reported that they were overweight or were attempting to lose weight and more reported attempts to gain weight (Gray, Ford, Kelly, 1987; Rosen & Gross, 1987). Very few studies have been done which report results on the Hispanic population and body size preferences. Smith and Krejci (1991) found that Hispanics were significantly more satisfied with their body shape than whites. However, no significance was found between whites and Hispanics on "body pride" (Story, French, Resnick, & Blum, 1995).

The Hispanic population is the fastest growing minority in the United States, with the number of Hispanic children now exceeding the number of black children. Little is known about how Hispanic children view either their body size or that of others. The conflicting findings from the few existing studies suggest further research on Hispanics' body image is warranted.

In the current study, white and Hispanic children were asked to identify their perceived body size, ideal body-size, and to judge same sex and other sex body size with the Childress et al. (1993) silhouette scale designed for children. Both gender and ethnic comparisons are made.



Participants included 189 children (99 boys, 90 girls) from both the community and private schools in the metropolitan area. There were 44 Hispanic and 145 white children. Participants were part of a larger 3-year longitudinal study on body image in children (Gardner et al., 1997) which required that they be 7, 10, or 13 years old. Average weight was 82.28 lbs. (36.95 kg) with SD = 12.85, average height was 56.24 in. (142.64 cm) with SD = 16.00, and average body mass index (weight(kg)/(height [(m).sup.2]) was 17.63 (SD = 3.27). More detailed demographic information about the participants is available in Gardner et al. (1997). Data from community participants were collected at the university laboratory while data on private school subjects were collected within the school setting. Children were paid $20 for their participation.


Participants were presented with eight female and eight male child figure drawings shown in Figure 1 ranging from very thin to very obese (Childress et al., 1993).


Participants were asked to select the drawing that approximated their perceived body size by responding to the statement, "Point to the picture that you think most looks like you." For their ideal body size subjects were asked, "Point to the picture that is the size you would most like to look like." Both sexes were asked to evaluate same sex and other sex body size by responding to the question, "Point to the picture that you think is the size that most boys (girls) look like." Similarly, both sexes were asked to evaluate same sex and other sex ideal body size by answering the question, "Point to the picture that you think is the best size for a boy (girl) to be."


Gardner, Friedman, and Jackson (1998) have criticized the statistical analyses used in analyzing body image data employing silhouette scales. They showed that most silhouette scales that use a discrete number of figures constitute noninterval scales. Previous researchers have inappropriately used parametric statistics when analyzing data from such scales. Since ratings on the Childress et al. (1993) figure drawing scale constitutes ordinal data, nonparametric statistics were used for all analyses. The Wilcoxon Rank-Sum test was used to evaluate median differences in independent samples and the Wilcoxson Signed-Rank test for median differences in dependent samples (Siegel, 1956).

Table 1 shows a comparison of medians for boys' and girls' judgments of body size. Boys perceived their body size to be larger than girls (Z = 2.88, p [less than] .004), even though the boys had a slightly smaller body mass index 17.54, SD = 3.19) than did the girls (M = 17.73, SD = 3.38). With respect to their ideal body size, girls wanted to be much smaller than boys (Z = 5.49. p [less than] .0000001).

The discrepancy between perceived and ideal body size is widely accepted as a measure of body dissatisfaction. Girls' perceived body size is larger than their ideal body size (Z = 4.42, p [less than].00001), as was expected. However, no such difference was found between perceived body size and ideal body size for boys. This reflects a high level of body dissatisfaction for girls but not for boys.

Children were asked to make judgments about the size of other children of the same sex as themselves, including their perceived size as well as the size they would be "ideally." Table 1 shows boys perceive other boys to be larger than what girls perceive other girls to be, as expected (Z = 2.39, p [less than] .02). Similarly, boys perceive the ideal size for other boys to be larger than girls' perceived ideal size for other girls (Z = 3.34, p [less than] .001). Table 1 also shows that boys perceived other boys to be larger than they judge they would be ideally (Z= 2.27, p [less than] .03), as did girls judging other girls (Z= 2.68, p [less than] .01).

When judging perceived sizes of the other sex, there was no significant difference between boys and girls. For ideal sizes, however, boys judged the ideal size for girls to be smaller than girls' judgments of ideal size for boys (Z = 2.32, p [less than] .03). Interestingly, neither boys nor girls think that the opposite sex body size needs to change significantly from the perceived size to be ideal. Both genders judge the perceived and ideal size of other boys and girls to be similar.

Girls hold themselves to a higher standard regarding their own body size than they do for other girls. The ideal figure that girls chose for themselves was significantly smaller than what they judged to be ideal for other girls (Z = 4.27, p [less than] .00002). No such difference existed for boys.

Table 2 shows the perceived and ideal body size as well as the discrepancy between the two (i.e., body dissatisfaction) for children in both ethnic groups. Overall, there were no significant differences between whites and Hispanic children on perceived body size, ideal body size or body dissatisfaction. More specifically, no differences were found between white and Hispanic male or female children on judgments of perceived body size, ideal body size, or body dissatisfaction.

Significant gender differences were found on perceived body size with white children only. White boys rated their body size significantly greater than girls (Z = 2.27, p [less than] .03), while no differences in perceived size were found between boys and girls in the Hispanic group.

Gender differences in children's ideal size were found for both ethnic groups, with girls expressing a desire for a smaller ideal body size as compared with males. White children had a larger gender discrepancy (Z = 4.22, p [less than] .0001), as compared to Hispanic children (Z = 2.93, p [less than] .01).

White girls were significantly more dissatisfied with their body size as compared to white males (Z = 2.35, p [less than] .02). Interestingly, there were no significant gender differences for Hispanic children.


Boys perceive themselves as larger than girls in their perceived body size, even though there was no significant difference in the body mass index of the two groups in the ages studied. This finding may be attributed to the fact that children perceive older male children as well as male adults to be larger than their female counterparts and inappropriately generalize this discrepancy to younger children. Similarly, girls perceive themselves as smaller than boys even though girls often develop physically more quickly than boys during the elementary school years. Like boys, they may be inappropriately generalizing from the discrepancy present in older individuals. The inaccuracy of both boys and girls may also reflect media influences through cartoons, action shows, and/or MTV (Levine & Smolak, 1996).

Boys perceive their current size as similar to what they would like to be ideally. Girls not only perceive themselves as smaller than boys but want to be even smaller ideally. The discrepancy between perceived and ideal size is greater for girls, reflecting a much higher level of body dissatisfaction. This is a particularly troublesome finding in children this young in that body dissatisfaction is widely recognized as one of the best predictors of subsequent eating disorders. Gardner et al. (1997) have previously shown that this body dissatisfaction appears as early as 9 years in girls. Dissatisfaction with body size, which was previously observed to occur most frequently during the early adolescent years, may now manifest itself during an earlier period of childhood.

When girls were asked to evaluate other girls, they judged them to be the same size as themselves. Nevertheless, when asked "What is the best size for a girl to be?" they chose a smaller "ideal" body size for themselves as compared to other girls. This reflects the unrealistic goals that even younger girls set for their ideal body size. The inability of most girls to ever attain this personal "ideal" results in subsequent body dissatisfaction with all its attendant pathology. It is interesting that girls will allow other girls more "imperfections," relative to body size, than they do themselves.

Boys thought girls looked fine at their current size, and did not need to be smaller to look ideal. This finding has been reported previously for older subjects (Cohn et al., 1987; Collins, 1991; Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Tantleff-Dunn & Thompson, 1995; Thompson et al., 1997). Girls' views of their own ideal size are thus widely disparate from what boys views are. This brings into question whether girls wish to be thin because of their perceptions of what boys want. It appears that they are striving to reach their own goals, independent of what is idealized by boys. Investigators have found that childhood teasing about body size was predictive of body dissatisfaction and the subsequent development of eating disturbances (J. K. Thompson, 1996). It would be interesting to determine whether the source of teasing for girls is from other girls, other boys, or both genders.

We found very few differences between white and Hispanic children. This is somewhat surprising in view of the large differences that have been reported between white and black children. The present study concurs with previous findings that there are no differences between perceived size in younger boys or male adolescents attributable to ethnicity (Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Story et al., 1995; Thompson et al., 1997). At least with children, it appears that Hispanics are very similar to whites in judgments of perceived and ideal size, as well as with levels of body dissatisfaction. This finding stands in sharp contrast to black children and may reflect different cultural or familial influences relative to what size children should be.

Ethnic differences are only observed when comparing boys and girls on both perceived body size and body dissatisfaction. Only white girls perceive their bodies as significantly smaller than boys and subsequently exhibit a significantly greater amount of dissatisfaction than boys. A similar trend is observed with Hispanic girls, but the differences failed to reach significance. Overall, gender differences are much larger and much more consistent than ethnic differences.

There has been little research done on body image in Hispanic children. Our findings confirm that of previous research in children and adolescents that have reported that whites and Hispanics are similar (Cohn et al., 1987; Collins, 1991; Fallon & Rozin, 1985). However, there are several studies with adults that show white/Hispanic differences. Lopez, Blix, and Blix (1995) found differences between Latina and non-Latina white women's choices of ideal body image. Two studies found that adult Hispanics were heavier, but were less concerned about their weight than whites (Harris & Koehler, 1992; Stern, Pugh, Gaskill, & Hazuda, 1982). Because the findings of these adult studies are inconsistent with the children's studies, we conclude that white and Hispanic children have similar body image perceptions in childhood, but may have cultural or familial variations later in life that impact their views of their body and their satisfaction with their body size.

Future research should focus on possible developmental changes as Hispanic children progress from childhood through adolescence. Participants in this study were either 7, 10, or 13 years of age, because of their participation in another ongoing study. The relatively small sample of Hispanic children did not permit meaningful statistical comparisons among the three age groups. Although no ethnic differences were found in this study, it is possible that such differences might emerge as children progress further through adolescence.


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This research was funded in part by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, R15 HD31697-01A1 to Rick M. Gardner. This paper presents data from a three-year longitudinal study on children's body image which was reported earlier in Gardner, R. M., Sorter, R. G., and Friedman, B. N. (1997). Developmental changes in children's body images. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 12, 1019-1036.
 Median Body Size Judgments of Boys and Girls to Themselves,
 Others of Same Sex, and Others of Different Sex.
Object Body Perceived vs. Ideeal Size Boys' Medians Girls' Medians
 Perceived 4.30 3.90
 Ideal 4.16 3.32
 Perceived 4.42 4.02
Same Sex
 Ideal 4.18 3.76
 Perceived 3.86 4.11
Other Sex
 Ideal 3.82 4.10
Note. Size judgements were made on an 8-figure scale where larger numbers
reflected a larger body size.
 Median Perceived and Ideal Body Sizes of White and Hispanic Children
 White Hispanic
 Perceived Body Size 4.24 [a][*] 4.50
Boys Ideal Body Size 4.13 [a][***] 4.39 [a][**]
 Discrepancy (Body
 Dissatisfaction) .11 [a][*] .11
 Perceived Body Size 3.88 [a][*] 4.08
Girls Ildeal Body Size 3.33 [a][***] 3.56 [a][**]
 Discrepancy (Body
 Dissatisfaction) .55 [a][*] .52
(a.)significant gender difference, (*.)p [less than] .05, (**.)p [less
than].01, (***.)p [less than].001.
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Date:Sep 22, 1999

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